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Milwaukee searches for freight siren song

By Sean Ryan

Milwaukee-area freight carriers see missed opportunities whenever cargo bypasses their city on the way to Chicago.

The people who are losing work — truckers, workers for the Port of Milwaukee and business owners based near General Mitchell International Airport — are trying to team up to learn how to snag more cargo. The first step is to find out what the Chicago area has that Milwaukee does not.

“There’s product moved now, yes,” said Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski. “Can it be moved more efficiently? Yes.”

If Milwaukee companies can get freight to stop in the city rather than near Chicago, the increased activity will attract more companies that rely on the cargo, said Chris Larson, a member of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors who represents the district around General Mitchell.

“The logical end to that is if that happens for a couple of years, it would goad them to build centers here,” he said.

But the area’s transportation hubs — General Mitchell, the Port of Milwaukee, the Canadian Pacific Railway freight railroad lines and the highways — need to be linked. An intermodal terminal in which freight is transferred among different forms of transportation, such as from trains to trucks, could fill that void, Witkowski said.

The Chicago area has numerous intermodal terminals, especially those that take cargo from trains and load it onto trucks, a process called piggybacking, said Tom Howells, president of the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association. The terminals are so busy that truckers from Wisconsin complain about waiting in long lines to pick up cargo and truck it to Milwaukee.

“When you deal with the rail piggybacking down in Chicago,” he said, “a lot of the cost is lost time just because of the bottleneck down there.”

The system is inefficient and redundant because some freight picked up at ports and intermodal terminals in Chicago already passed Milwaukee on southbound trains and ships, said Tom Rave, executive director of the Airport Gateway Business Association.

“It’s a concept that intuitively makes sense,” Rave said of creating more intermodal services in Milwaukee, “because there are a lot of trains that go through Milwaukee, mostly from the Canadian Pacific rail lines.”

Rave’s organization, which represents businesses around General Mitchell, is trying to unite the seven municipalities that border the airport to promote development. That effort centers on ways to connect airway shippers to rail and highway haulers, he said.

Witkowski said it is too early to say if a new intermodal yard is the answer and, if so, how the public and private sectors can cooperate to establish it.

While those terminals would collect fees when transferring freight, the biggest advantage of attracting the business will be the ability to lure other companies that are now around the terminals in Chicago, Larson said.

“We can attract some of the businesses that do business with the Chicago port to Milwaukee because we cost less,” he said.

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