By Dennis Wilmsmeyer, executive director of America’s Central Port
Where We Stand Preview blog posts represent the opinion of the author and do not represent the view of East-West Gateway of Governments. This post is part of the Where We Stand 7th Edition Preview Blog Series. View other posts in the series here.
Okay, so the title of this article is a little corny, but it definitely underscores where St. Louis sits in terms of freight today and how it is positioning itself going forward. St. Louis has always been a river town, followed by a rail town, followed by a highway town and a runway town; but never forgetting its previous roots. Its excellent location on the Mississippi River as the Gateway to the West, allowed for early trading of goods and helped to establish it as more than just a small trading outpost in the mid-1700s. Rail lines in the 1800s made St. Louis the busiest rail city in the country. Charles Lindbergh brought aviation fame to St. Louis in 1927 where his experience as an air mail pilot at Lambert Field, and the local financing of the Spirit of St. Louis, made his flight from New York to Paris possible, and opened up a whole new era of air flight in the world, and ultimately, development of two world-class commercial service airports in the region. Then in the mid-1900s, a new interstate highway system put St. Louis in the crosshairs of the national surface transportation system.
Underscoring nearly all of the investments in the varying modes of transportation over several centuries was freight; that is, getting raw materials, semi-finished, or finished goods from producer to end customer, and all of the stops in between.
Freight, in one form or another, has always been around and always will be, especially since we have become a society dependent on finished goods. As we individually produce less, but demand more and more finished goods for our families, the need to move freight across the country and around the world has risen dramatically. The US Department of Transportation has predicted a 45 percent rise in freight movement in this country by the year 2045.
When we go shopping for clothes, shoes, food, furniture, or whatever, it was a ship, barge, railcar, airplane or truck that got that product to the store; or more likely, a combination of two or three of these modes. But no matter how it gets there, we seem to have taken for granted the incredible transportation infrastructure in this country, and especially in St. Louis, that made it happen.
St. Louis sits on the Mississippi River geographically centered between Minneapolis/St. Paul and New Orleans. Locks #27, the last lock on the Mississippi River as one is heading south, sits immediately north of downtown St. Louis, making all destinations from St. Louis southward, lock free. The Mississippi River in St. Louis remains generally ice-free, allowing year-round movement of goods on the River. Just to the north of St. Louis are the confluences of the Missouri and Illinois Rivers, connecting St. Louis to Kansas City and points westward, as well as Chicago and the Great Lakes. The US Department of Transportation Maritime Administration recently designated St. Louis as part of three marine highways: M-35, M-55 and M-70, which helps to underscore St. Louis’ importance to river traffic in this country.
St. Louis is the terminus of the east-west railroads. In other words, generally speaking, the St. Louis metropolitan area serves as the western terminus of the eastern Class I rail lines, and the eastern terminus of the western rail lines. This puts St. Louis in an excellent position for the trans-loading of goods, or switching of rail cars, that are heading cross country by rail.
Two commercial service airports: Lambert-St. Louis International and St. Louis MidAmerica Airport have adequate freight and passenger capacity and, thanks to being in the heart of the country, can reach any city by air in the continental U.S. within four hours.
Finally, with Interstates 44, 55, 64 and 70 converging in St. Louis, a big portion of the nation’s north-south and east-west freight traffic flow originates, stops in or passes through St. Louis on a daily basis.
St. Louis’ ranking as the second busiest inland port in the country, and potentially number one in terms of the value of the commodities handled at the Mississippi River terminals, is not by chance. Among the 50 largest metropolitan regions in the United States, St. Louis handles more freight than most large metro areas. The St. Louis MSA ranks 11th among the peer regions for the amount of freight volume handled with an estimated 341 million tons of freight moving in, out, and within the region in 2012. Considering the value of freight, St. Louis ranks 16th with $261 billion worth of freight handled in the region. Surpassing many seaports is no small feat, but certainly underscores St. Louis’ many transportation assets and its importance to the nation’s overall transportation system.
But since the 1700s, freight in St. Louis has just happened. There have been some significant, yet scattered investments that have increased freight flow into and out of St. Louis, and some examples of the transportation modes working together to reduce transportation costs, but for the most part, it has been a truly demand-driven exercise.
Across the country, you don’t see many communities clamoring for additional rail cars to roll through their town. In many respects, transportation for all modes has become a NIMBY (not in my back yard). But in St. Louis, that is different. Local communities are opening up to the rail lines and working with them to create new rail yards. Overpasses are being designed and built to ease the freight flow on already-overcrowded rail lines. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in river terminals in and near the downtown St. Louis area. The new “Stan span” across the River is providing incredible relief for truck freight flow on Interstate 70 through St. Louis.
Perhaps it is because St. Louis is located in the middle of the country where life is a little more laid back and people are generally more friendly and much more understanding about being inconvenienced by a train at a crossing or large trucks on the road. Or maybe more likely, it is because St. Louisans just get it. They understand the value and importance of transportation living at the heart of where Lewis and Clark began their expedition looking for a western passage to the ocean, for what else – freight movement.
Today, regional leaders have re-doubled their efforts to capitalize on the forecasted growth of freight movement and St. Louis’ world class location. Bi-State Development Agency, with powers to operate in both Illinois and Missouri, will house the area’s (and arguably the country’s) first Freight District, called appropriately enough, St. Louis Gateway. The Freight District will focus on marketing St. Louis as a major logistics center, plan for area economic development growth in transportation, prioritize regional transportation projects and push for bi-state support for them, remove impediments to the transportation system in St. Louis, and above all, give freight the stature it deserves.
Freight and transportation are intertwined, and it is the St. Louis area’s continued investment in the already top-notch transportation system, that will bring continued growth to the region. The old saying is that freight does not vote. In St. Louis, freight not only votes. It is winning the election. It’s a great time to be in St. Louis.