Metro-East News

St. Louis and metro-east leaders work to turn region into freight ‘epicenter’

Six interstate highways. Six Class I railroads. Four public barge ports. More than 180 private river terminals. Two international cargo airports. Three regional airports. Ten major product-distribution parks. Dozens of smaller industrial and business parks.

What do all these things have in common? They’re considered “assets” in a campaign to make the St. Louis region an “epicenter” of freight transportation in the Midwest.

“There is great potential, and Southwestern Illinois has even more to gain than St. Louis,” said Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port in Granite City.

The metro-east is key, he said, because it has plenty of land for warehouses and other industrial development, and the economic activity would create jobs for local residents.

Wilmsmeyer also is marketing committee chairman for St. Louis Regional Freightway, an arm of Bi-State Development that’s coordinating the campaign. It conducts research, provides information, promotes infrastructure projects and helps companies with site selection and other needs.

“Our role is to help grow jobs in the manufacturing and logistics industries,” said Executive Director Mary Lamie. “And the two objectives that we focus on to meet this mission are maximizing infrastructure and investing through public and private partnerships.”

That means getting agencies, organizations and businesses in Illinois and Missouri to work together on projects — particularly when they’re trying to get federal funds — instead of competing with each other.

Cooperation between modes of transportation also is considered vital.

The economic feasibility of different freight-moving options often is tied to the creation of complicated trade routes that allow freight to go in both directions on a combination of trucks, trains, barges and airplanes, said Tim Cantwell, director of MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah.

“This is not retail,” he said. “These are markets. We’re trying to create trade routes. These are things that don’t come around very easily, but once they come around, they stay.”

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Teri Maddox

Bringing together the four Rs

Freight can include bulk crops, fuel, raw materials, factory parts and consumer products. “Logistics” refers to the complex process of moving it from point of origin to point of consumption.

Some 384 million tons of freight moved through the St. Louis region in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Freight Analysis Framework.

The region’s logistics involves all of the “four Rs” — roads, runways, rails and rivers. But in the early 2000s, industry leaders weren’t sharing enough information or working together on common goals, Cantwell said.

The East-West Gateway Council of Governments formed a study group, and that led to the creation of Freightway four years ago.

“They were aware of U.S. Department of Transportation predictions that freight volumes would increase by 40 percent over the next three decades,” said Lamie, a trained civil engineer who used to work for the Illinois Department of Transportation. “They also recognized that regions in the Midwest could benefit from that.”

St. Louis, in particular, is well-positioned because of its central location, Wilmsmeyer said. He noted that 70 percent of the U.S. population is a two-day truck drive away.

Another Freightway priority is raising awareness of what the region has to offer in other parts of the United States and world. For the past two summers, it has hosted a four-day national conference called “FreightWeekSTL,” complete with a Mississippi riverboat cruise in 2018.

“The general public in St. Louis and the country doesn’t really know what tremendous assets we have for the movement of freight,” Wilmsmeyer said. “We’ve done a terrible job of telling our story. ... The assets are here. We just need to market them. Other cities have done a better job.”

Efforts to spread the word are particularly important for local airports, Cantwell said.

“This area is in the center of the populace of the United States, and it’s a good distribution area. We haven’t had a lot of (international air) freight in this region. It’s all gone to Chicago or Dallas or Memphis, and we think we can get on board with that.”

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St. Louis Regional Freightway

Roads, bridges and railroads

Local residents are perhaps most familiar with freight being transported by tractor-trailers on six interstates in the region: I-270, I-255, I-55, I-70, I-64 and I-44. Passenger vehicles are sharing roads with more and more of them each day.

But many people don’t know that St. Louis is the third-largest rail hub in the United States. Its six Class I railroads include BNSF Railway Co., Canadian National Railway Co., CSX Corp., Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern Corp. and Union Pacific Railroad.

“The region serves all corners of the U.S. without the need for railroad interchange,” according to the Freightway website.

“Our barge/rail transload services provide supply-chain options for shipments to and from both Houston and New Orleans. These connections allow delivery of freight from Houston to St. Louis for distribution anywhere else. Additionally, agricultural products from points in the Midwest can be delivered to New Orleans for export.”

Bridges are key to both highway and railroad systems in St. Louis because they carry trucks and trains over the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Repairs and widening projects have made plenty of news recently, but two announcements in particular caused industry leaders to celebrate.

Last year, the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis announced that it would spend $172 million to renovate the Merchants Bridge, a railroad bridge that crosses the Mississippi north of downtown St. Louis.

That was No. 1 on Freightway’s list of priority infrastructure projects. Experts had warned that the deteriorating bridge, which opened in 1890, was at risk of being closed in 10 years.

“(The renovation is) going to be a game-changer for our region,” Lamie said, noting it will double the bridge’s capacity, allowing it to support two trains at a time instead of only one.

Also last year, the Illinois Department of Transportation listed a $223 million project to replace the Chain of Rocks Bridge in its Proposed Highway Improvement Program for 2019-2024, also known as its Multi-Year Plan. The cost will be split with Missouri, but IDOT is the lead agency.

The 53-year-old bridge carries vehicles over the Mississippi from Madison County to St. Louis on Interstate 270. Officials often refer to it as a “bottleneck,” saying it wasn’t designed to accommodate more than 50,000 vehicles a day (up from 20,000 in 1975). There are no shoulders — causing safety concerns — and maintenance costs are rising.

Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler was one of several local political leaders who praised the state’s decision to move the project forward.

“Madison County is a nationally recognized logistics hub with Gateway Commerce Center at its core,” he stated. “Trucks transport cargo across (the bridge) daily, and thousands of people commute back and forth to work. The bridge keeps the county’s logistics industry growing and continues to provide people greater opportunities for jobs.”

In more recent highway news, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a capital-projects bill in June that provides $33 million for a new Dupo interchange on Interstate 255. It was a priority for St. Clair County officials, who say it will improve truck access to a Union Pacific Railroad yard and may spur other manufacturing and logistics growth.

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Mississippi barge ports

America’s Central Port in Granite City is one of four operating barge ports along the Mississippi River in the St. Louis region and one of two in Illinois. The other one is Kaskaskia Regional Port District in Red Bud. There also are about 180 private river terminals.

One reason for the high number is that the Mississippi is ice-free and lock-free from St. Louis south to the Gulf of Mexico.

“There are no constraints (on barges), all the way to New Orleans,” Wilmsmeyer said.

ACP originally was known as Tri-City Regional Port District. The state of Illinois created it in 1959 as a special-purpose unit of local government to “develop multi-modal transportation, create business expansion opportunities and facilitate and assist in job creation for the region.”

Today, the 1,200-acre campus — former site of Charles M. Price Support Center, which the U.S. Army closed in 2001 — is a place where barges, trucks and trains meet to exchange three million tons of freight valued at more than $1 billion a year.

About 60 percent is corn, soybeans and other agricultural commodities.

“Along a 15-mile stretch of river that’s largely centered at the Gateway Arch, we have 15 river-terminal facilities that are moving more agricultural products on the river than anywhere else in the country, and 10 of them are in Illinois,” Wilmsmeyer said.

As a result, Freightway’s marketing committee has adopted the slogan “The Ag Coast of America” as part of its campaign.

But it’s about more than transporting agricultural freight, Wilmsmeyer said. He would like to see the development of corn and soybean mills and other food-processing facilities that would create jobs for local residents.

Another Freightway goal is figuring out how to transport more products in individual containers stacked on barges, as opposed to the traditional huge compartments filled with bulk corn, soybeans, sand, gravel and other commodities. This already is being done in Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“More and more ocean liners are using containers, and they want to push them further into the U.S.,” Lamie said.

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Mid-America and other airports

Mid-America St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah and St. Louis Lambert International Airport in St. Louis are often in the news, but stories almost always focus on passenger services. Most people are oblivious to their cargo capabilities.

Cantwell has been with MidAmerica for 17 years. He said one of his biggest challenges has been trying to persuade companies to change long-standing routines that involve flying into O’Hare International Airport in Chicago or other U.S. cities and hauling freight to St. Louis by truck or visa versa.

“International air freight is non-existent in the St. Louis area,” he said. “We’re trying to make it exist.”

Cantwell was speaking of regularly-scheduled flights carrying “heavy” freight. Both MidAmerica and Lambert serve chartered cargo planes, but they’re inconsistent. Lambert also has contracts related to the transportation of small packages for UPS, FedEx and — as of last month — Amazon.

MidAmerica had regularly-scheduled cargo flights that imported flowers from Bogota, Colombia, for about two years, but that ended in 2010.

“A strategic decision was made to take the cargo building and convert it for Boeing to open up its first aircraft-part-manufacturing plant in Illinois,” Cantwell said, adding that he hopes to see the flower business return someday.

Today, MidAmerica is used by North Bay Produce, an international fruit and vegetable cooperative based in Michigan. The company built a $5.7 million, 36,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse on airport property in 2012.

“We get big airplanes full of freight, but it’s on a charter basis,” Cantwell said. ”We may get one a month. We may get none a month, and we’re trying to speed that up.”

NorthBay later enlarged its refrigerated warehouse to 60,000 square feet, making it the “largest on-airport-parking-ramp perishable center north of Florida,” Cantwell said. MidAmerica also has developable land in enterprise and foreign trade zones, providing tax benefits.

Cantwell’s ultimate goal is seeing more manufacturing parts, finished goods and other heavy freight coming through the airport.

“It’s not an easy equation,” he said. “It’s difficult. But guess what? If it were easy, everybody would be doing it.”

There also are three smaller airports in the region: St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia, St. Louis Regional Airport in East Alton and Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, Missouri. Freightway considers them assets in the freight campaign because of their charter passenger services and aviation-manufacturing facilities.

Teri Maddox

Product-distribution parks

Product-distribution parks play a prominent role in the logistics world, and Illinois is home to the largest of 10 major ones in the St. Louis region. Gateway Commerce Center covers 2,300 acres of former farmland on both sides of Interstate 255, north of Interstate 270. It’s about eight miles from Edwardsville proper, but it’s been annexed by the city.

Tenants range from Amazon to Save a Lot, Hershey to Proctor & Gamble. Products and parts are unloaded from tractor-trailers and stored in giant warehouses before moving to final destinations.

“There’s also assembly going on there,” said one of Gateway’s developers, Mike Towerman, of TriStar Companies, based in Creve Couer, Missouri.

Another Edwardsville distribution park, Lakeview Commerce Center, covers about 750 acres north of Gateway Commerce Center on the west side of Interstate 255. Tenants include Amazon, Spectrum Brand and World Wide Technology.

A third metro-east distribution park, Gateway TradePort, is being developed on 600 acres southwest of the Interstate 255-270 intersection in Pontoon Beach. The first 544,000-square-foot building is now under construction, said David Branding, a real-estate broker with Jones Lang Lasalle, who helps with leasing.

“(Gateway TradePort) is designed to have up to 7.5 million square feet in multiple buildings,” he said.

Gateway Commerce, Lakeview and Gateway TradePort are all in enterprise zones with tax benefits.

Other major product-distribution parks in the region include Fenton Logistics Park in South St. Louis County, former site of the Chrysler factory; Premier 370 Business Park in St. Charles County; and Aviator Business Park, Hazelwood Logistics Center, Earth City Industrial, NorthPark and Hazelwood TradePort in North St. Louis County.

There are dozens of smaller industrial and business parks in Illinois and Missouri that add more pieces to the logistics puzzle.

Cities across the country have experienced growth in construction and leasing at distribution parks in recent years, and St. Louis is no exception, Branding said. He attributes it to a combination of factors, including the increase in e-commerce.

“We have had record levels of new construction of distribution buildings throughout the St. Louis metropolitan area since 2014,” Branding said. “... The economy is doing very well, and companies are using their distribution centers much differently than they used to.”

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Teri Maddox has been a reporter for 35 years, joining the Belleville News-Democrat in 1990. She also teaches journalism at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. She holds degrees from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and University of Wisconsin-Madison.