Major dollar signs are tied to the white-knuckle driving experience of sharing region highways daily with thousands of 40-ton semitrailers, a Times investigation shows.
An ongoing Times computer-assisted probe of the region's trucking industry revealed an industrial colossus that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue every year.
Steel still may be viewed as Northwest Indiana's industrial king, but the region's trucking and overall freight hauling and logistics industry — which includes heavy trucks, rail, air and water transportation — generates an estimated $3.2 billion in annual sales revenue, according to a region transportation study.
A Times analysis of the U.S. Department of Transportation's heavy truck census data identified 6,472 heavy truck companies operating out of five Northwest Indiana counties and 10 municipalities in Chicago's south suburbs. The census information, representing companies that operate commercial vehicles in excess of 10,000 pounds, was current as of September 2008 and comprises the most recent federal data available.
Those region-based companies either directly employ — or support industries that employ — tens of thousands of workers, according to federal and region transportation data.
Region transportation planners acknowledge the vast effect of the region's trucking industry on the local economy — in terms of jobs and in billions of dollars worth of freight shipments.
But one transportation research expert from Purdue University Calumet said the numbers — as large as they are — also represent an industrial resource that has yet to be harnessed fully.
Dollars beyond traffic
If region residents fail to see the economics behind the region's glut of heavy trucks on local highways and interstates, they probably can be forgiven, region transportation planners say.
Each year, more than 2 million heavy trucks — many hauling freight — pass Northwest Indiana weigh stations on Interstate 65 and Interstate 80/94 alone, Indiana State Police commercial vehicle inspectors estimate.
Thomas Vander Woude, a transportation planner with the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, acknowledged motorists often don't look past the nerve-racking nature of sharing crowded region highways with vehicles that outweigh passenger cars by 40 tons or more.
But a map Vander Woude recently pored over at NIRPC's Portage office showed the effect of the heavy trucking industry beyond the 6,000-plus trucking firms.
Vander Woude's map plots hundreds of colored dots — each representing a company reliant on the trucking industry — spanning Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties. The dots represent businesses from truck stops to leasing and logistics companies, collectively employing hundreds of people.
A 2006 Purdue University Calumet study shows heavy trucking in Northwest Indiana generates more than $900 million per year in direct sales revenue — more than twice as much as the value of the combined freight traveling by rail, air and water and tied to the warehousing sector.
The region's heavy truck firms range from small logistical or one-truck operations to large trucking firms with fleets of more than 100 semitrailers.
In all, the federal truck census shows region-based trucking firms operate more than 25,000 trucks and employ thousands of drivers.
Stream of commodities
Not surprising for a region characterized by its steel mills, metals comprise one of the biggest single categories of freight that local trucking firms ship to and from the region.
At least 1,100, or nearly 18 percent, of region-based trucking companies haul metal, The Times review of federal records shows.
Base metal and machinery account for 28 percent of all freight tonnage shipped out of Northwest Indiana every year, representing about $11.9 billion in commodities shipped, according to the Purdue Calumet study.
Construction and building equipment also rank high on the trucking commodities list, with 1,749 region trucking firms dealing in those types of cargo, federal records show.
Failure to capitalize?
The size and volume of the region's trucking industry are undeniable, but one transportation expert said Northwest Indiana is falling short of capitalizing on its potential.
In 2006, region leaders rallied en masse behind an effort to land a major truck and rail freight center capable of creating thousands of jobs.
Part of the push for the Northwest Indiana intermodal freight center — which would facilitate the transfer of huge freight containers from train to truck and truck to train — was bolstered by a landmark study issued by Purdue Calumet economics professor Amlan Mitra.
But about six years later, Mitra said he has seen very little progress toward that goal.
Mitra said the thousands of trucking companies in Northwest Indiana and the south suburbs contribute to an industrial foundation upon which an intermodal freight center could thrive.
But, he said, indecisiveness among fragmented communities has translated into little progress toward establishing an intermodal freight facility.
"There is a lack of coordination and collective voice coming from the region on this issue," Mitra said. "Part of the problem is disagreement over where such a facility would be best located. But transportation has no boundaries, and benefits would spill over to everywhere in the region, regardless of the physical location."
NIRPC's Vander Woude said there are arguments for and against such a facility in Northwest Indiana.
"Some say it's logical that Northwest Indiana would be the place to be for such a facility," Vander Woude said, noting the region's location in the heart of the manufacturing belt and proximity to major interstates and highways.
"Others say this is not going to happen because by the time you're in Northwest Indiana, you're already in the Chicago region, which already has facilities."
Vander Woude also said while the freight shipping industry remains important, the effect of increased truck traffic on the region's quality of life also must be weighed and studied.
"The question is, do the negative impacts outweigh the good?" Vander Woude said.