September 18, 2017 4:15 PM, EDT

Illinois County Freight Plan Balances Growth, Livability, Officials Say

By its very title, the Will County, Ill., Community Friendly Freight Mobility Plan sounds like an “oxymoron,” but the 238-page document does attempt to balance the needs of economic development with residents’ quality of life, officials said.

The final draft of the long-awaited plan was presented to the county board’s Executive Committee Thursday, and may be formally approved by the full board at its meeting this Thursday.

“The term ‘freight friendly’ is an oxymoron, but the plan acknowledges that livability is important. It acknowledges that it is more than commerce, but it is also quality of life that is important,” said board Speaker Jim Moustis, (R-Frankfort Township.)

The plan was created with feedback from the public and the trucking industry, which indicated that improving safety and reducing congestion were top priorities.

The purpose of the study is to understand the current state of freight movement; study the growth of this industry in the future; look at best practices for communities to follow; identify critical infrastructure projects for funding and identify workforce issues, according to John Greuling, CEO of the Will County Center for Economic Development.

Its numbers indicate that 57% of all private sector jobs in Will County are freight dependent, and that is expected to grow by 33%, a figure planners said was “low” and does not include projects now being talked about, such as the Compass Business Park in Elwood/Manhattan and the proposed CSX intermodal in Crete.

The study also showed that 63% of the freight movement in Will County is just passing through.

Currently, 40% of the jobs pay more than $15 an hour, which could increase with technological advances in the industry, said project manager Ann Schneider, former secretary of the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Wages and accessibility to jobs are issues in this workforce, officials said.

Freight movement is “critical” to the economic success of the county, the state and the nation, said Jacki Murdock, a planner with CDM Smith, part of Schneider’s team.

“The infrastructure cannot handle what is already occurring and will worsen without strategic investment, and state and federal dollars,” Murdock said.

If the freight industry continues to grow without road improvements, it will impact Will County’s competitiveness in the market and residents’ quality of life, Murdock said.

Some of the recommendations in the plan included:

•Widen and replace the Des Plaines River bridges over Interstate 80.

•Make improvements on Interstate 55.

•Widen I-80.

•Improve east-west road connections to relieve bottlenecks.

•Prioritize projects to address locations with more truck crashes.

•Install consistent truck route signage, and communicate routes to truck drivers.

•Improve wages and access for employees.

After the plan is approved, Schneider said she will use its data to apply for federal grants this fall.

While this is the final draft, Moustis said it has to be a document that is adjusted regularly.

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