Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Intermodal blog.

I attended the first-ever I-39 Expo today, held in that mecca of obscure business meetings, Rosemont, Ill. The idea of an "I-39 Expo" is something of an oddity, when you think about it, but the organizers had their reasons.

The Illinois section of I-39 runs from Bloomington/Normal north to the state line at Beloit, Wis., and as things stand now, that highway is beyond the pale of greater Chicago, though that metro area is slowing reaching westward to meet I-39. The economic development people who put on this event want to egg on that process, hence the expo. According to those selling the area, it is now the "I-39 Logistics Corridor." Which is to say, the econ development people dream of new warehouses and distribution space.

To simplify, but not oversimplify: Warehouses come first, because to make the numbers work you need fairly cheap land; then comes residential development; then retail development to service those people; and lastly, office space, if at all. People talk about "sprawl" as if were some kind of mold, which is nonsense. There are economic rationales for each stage of development. It may not look orderly, or look good at all, but there is an economically rational pattern overall. More or less.

Most interesting to me is the intermodal center that's being built near the town of Rochelle, Ill., which along the Interstate in question. I suppose intermodal centers are an acquired interest, but anyway one is being built by the Union Pacific, and in the logistics world, it's big news. The shortage of intermodal capacity in the Chicago area -- and from this perspective, Rochelle counts as the Chicago area -- has been backing up the distribution chain for goods for half of the world.

That's only a slight bit of hyperbole. Billions of things are made on the Pacific Rim, which are put into millions of intermodal containers. These come by ship to the various ports of the West Coast, and then put on trains. The rail network of North America is such that Chicago is the hub of all hubs. So vast numbers of the containers come here -- to intermodal centers, where they are either loaded on trucks, or other trains bound eastward.

The UP intermodal center isn't the only one around here, of course, or even the only new one. Last October, I attended the grand opening of the BNSF intermodal center near Joliet, Ill. It isn't what I would call picturesque, consisting as it does of several long strips of concrete with RR tracks running the length, and a number of enormous cranes on parallel tracks to service them. But it was fun to drive the length of the concrete to the tent for the festivities. It was like being turned loose on an airport runway in my car -- something you don't get to do every day, or ever for that matter.


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