I’ve been thinking about the topic of logistics since reading the book Aerotropolis several months ago. One logistical issue that comes up on a regular basis is the congestion and delays that take place in and around Chicago. Being a chokepoint for numerous rail lines and highways at the south end Lake Michigan, the Chicago Region is critical hub for cross-country freight movements. With the rapid growth in just-in-time delivery, containerization, container ports, and intermodal facilities over the past few decades, any bottlenecks and/or delays here can spell big trouble for those firms depending on their goods being transported by rail or truck through Chicago.
As a result, it seems to me that Michigan and Wisconsin may be missing a golden opportunity to take advantage of the routine bottlenecks in Chicago by developing a set of bypass container ports on either side of Lake Michigan for the un-congested transport of those goods moving cross-country. The container ports could be constructed at either Milwaukee, Racine, Sheboygan, or Manitowoc on the Wisconsin side of the lake and in Muskegon, Ludington, and possibly Manistee or Frankfort on the Michigan side. Granted this option would not be applicable to all goods moving in and out of Chicago, but those items moving towards the Eastern Great Lakes, Northeastern United States, and Eastern Canada could easily flow through these lake ports, be off-loaded onto rail cars, and/or and then be shipped eastward from there by rail or truck. Likewise for goods shipping westward to the Western Great Lakes, Northern Plains, Rockies, and Pacific Northwest. The trans-shipment across Lake Michigan could also serve as a back-up in case of a National emergency.
Some may scoff at this notion and issue of low water levels would need to be resolved, but I think there is real merit in at least considering it as an economic development option. One only need to look at the growth of container ports across the globe to see the huge potential. Where rail cars were once shipped across the lake, could containers be a 21st Century option? Consider this:
According to a recent (2012) New York Times article, trains are delayed by as much as 30 hours when passing through the Chicago bottleneck. For some of the 1,300 freight and passenger trains, this extent of delay could provide an open door to the cross lake option, if planned and designed properly. According to answers.com, a fully loaded, medium-sized container ship can be loaded and unloaded in 10-12 hours. Combined with the four hours for the lake crossing itself and you have a total of 14-16 hours. I have a feeling that a lot of companies would be thrilled to get their goods 15 hours earlier than if they went through Chicago. Seems to me, this could be a great opportunity for some savvy shipping firms, Lake Michigan harbor communities, businesspeople, and states of Michigan and Wisconsin to consider more fully.
While shipping rail cars may not be competitively feasible as it once was, moving shipping containers across Lake Michigan could be a whole other story. Just a thought that perhaps both states ought to at least consider and analyze, if not pursue.