By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Critical pieces of strategy are falling into place for the new St. Louis Regional Freightway as officials move forward with plans to market the region as a multimodal cargo hub.
Executive Director Mary Lamie said the month of March is being devoted to putting together a marketing plan and a freight-development plan. Both were among recommendations in a freight study done in 2013 by East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the area’s metropolitan planning organization. That same study led to the formation last year of the freight district, which falls under the umbrella of Bi-State Development.
All this is being done in light of an anticipated 60 percent growth rate in the American freight industry.
“We know there are specific areas in the Midwest and throughout the nation that are going to substantially benefit from it,” Lamie said.
The study provided three key recommendations, the first of which is to improve marketing of the region as a freight hub. Until now, peer cities like Memphis, Nashville and Kansas City have gotten more attention.
“The last 15 years they’ve been very aggressively marketing campaigns as it relates to the freight industry. We’ve been overshadowed,” she said.
The second recommendation was to have the area’s many public and private interests do a better job of working together at a regional level, instead of competing with one another.
“When it comes to setting our transportation priorities from a network perspective focusing on all of our modes of transportation, we’re not doing a great job of that,” she said.
The third recommendation was to create the freight district itself. Lamie was hired to head up that effort last May. She had 22 years with the Illinois Department of Transportation, including seven as deputy director for Region 5 where she was responsible for regional planning.
The district works on behalf of Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties in Illinois, and St. Louis city and St. Louis, Franklin, Jefferson and St. Charles counties in Missouri.
The report also stressed the need to build a freight development plan that will recommend specific projects to drive the multimodal movement, calling on various constituencies for input. For example, the replacement of the aging Interstate 270 Bridge over the Mississippi River, has long been a regional priority.
“That is a national project,” Lamie said. “As a region we need to work together at the local state and national level to compete for money for that.”
Using the same example, the freight district would also study things like access and interchanges.
“We’re talking about when the trucks get off the interstate, when they’re getting through that interchange and to the facility, what does that last mile look like? Are there specific improvements we need to make sure our transportation costs remain competitive?”
The area needs to do better enlisting the input of the private sector, she said.
“We’re going to use the freight development plan as a planning tool. When we think about projects like Interstate 255, that didn’t happen overnight,” she said. “Those types of projects take planning and advocating for.”
Trucking, of course, is only one of several modes of transportation. Some 42 percent of freight movement through this region is by truck; 23 percent is by rail; 16 percent is by pipeline; 10 percent is by water; 1 percent is by air. Other freight is moved by multiple modes of travel.
Significant growth is expected from what’s known as container-on-barge transport.
“Within the next 10 years, there is going be a region along the Mississippi River that is going to benefit from a container-on-barge program,” Lamie said. “That means products will be shipped on barges and moved to rail. You’re going to find a shipper who’s going to purchase, say, a thousand containers, and he’s going to basically need 600 or 700 acres of land to do that type of facility. We want to see what it would take for us to be competitive for that type of option.”
In December, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act — or FAST Act, the long-awaited national transportation bill. There is a significant amount of money earmarked for the freight industry.
Some $4.6 billion has been set aside for nationally significant highway and freight projects. Some $500 million of that can be used for freight intermodal and freight rail projects, she told the Illinois Business Journal.
Only governmental entities can submit application for funds — IDOT for instance, or a municipality, or a port authority or, locally, Bi State Development.
“With the dollars they’ve set aside for freight rail, working with any of the Class I railroads or the Terminal Railroad Association, that’s something we could help sponsor,” Lamie said.
To draw up a plan, she will lean on a broad cross-section of industry leaders, with emphasis on the private sector, for instance shippers like Archer Daniels Midland, Kinder Morgan and 3PL, or barge companies, fleeting companies, trucking companies and the like.
Despite the area’s diversity, big shippers have not yet caught on, Lamie said. When East-West Gateway did its freight study, it interviewed some site selectors and big shippers like Kohl’s and Amazon. Some of those participants seemed unfamiliar with what the St. Louis region has to offer.
“In response to that we put together a list with our key strengths,” she said. “Until two years ago we never had such a list. We were all being very parochial. The point is, when you put all this together it’s very compelling. In some areas we actually outcompete some of our peer cities.”
One of those strong points is the availability of workforce. Another is the existing presence of national and global companies like those based at Gateway Commerce Center in Edwardsville and Pontoon Beach.
The multimodal nature of the market is tailor-made for big shippers, Lamie said. And the region’s location in the center of the country makes it a one-day drive to many metropolitan areas.
“We have two international cargo airports (MidAmerica and Lambert), with available capacity. And six Class I railroads.” From here, a freight rail carrier can go anywhere in the United States without having to be switched.
“Then, we have the nation’s third-largest inland port (America’s Central Port). We have a significant price differential,” she said. “If you put your product on a barge in the St. Louis region, we are ice-free to the Gulf of Mexico. We are south of all the locks and dams, which are like traffic signals for the barge industry moving up and down the river.”
This region’s stretch of the Mississippi River is deeper than anywhere to the north. That could be attractive to the barge industry, which has designed many of its barges to be deeper, to be more cost effective.
The region also offers six natural gas and nine refined product pipelines.
Lamie hopes to have the freight development and marketing plans done this summer. The first will include a list of possible multimodal transportation projects.
Also to be wrapped up this summer is a planned website, with an interactive GIS map, which will provide all kinds of information on the transportation system, available real estate, and competitive advantages.
She also points out that the area is primed for ecommerce growth because of the presence of large shippers UPS and FedEx.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH