Development officials hope to turn Rockford into industrial hub

Mike Wiser

Farm fields and two-lane roads stretch for miles south of Rockford’s airport into the outskirts of Rochelle in Ogle County.

It’s the same story moving east from the south side of the airport along Belt Line Road. There are some warehouses and some homesteads, but it’s mostly fields until it meets up with Interstate 39.

But Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen, Greater Rockford Airport Authority board of directors Chairman Mike Dunn and others see something else: an industrial corridor.

That’s why Winnebago County will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars next year to upgrade Belt Line Road so it can carry heavier trucks to I-39, and the county rail authority is hoping to get millions more to upgrade little-used tracks that lead to Rochelle to carry speedier cargo trains to and from the Rochelle hub.

And both road and rail connections will lead to the airport in Rockford.

With better rails and better roads, they hope, businesses will follow. Specifically, the types of businesses that need to move things from one place to another quickly.

“There is so much action in the freight side,” Christiansen said. “We talk about O’Hare and everyone thinks passenger service, but (the airport’s) freight service is just as congested.”

That’s why Christiansen has made the Belt Line Road project a key part of the five-year capital road-improvement plan.

The county anticipates spending upward of $800,000 — which is the county’s share of a $5.4 million project — to repair the bridges over the Kishwaukee River and the Illinois Net Railroad to upgrade their weight capacity from 80,000 pounds to 120,000 pounds.

To a freight company, that means getting done in two trips what used to take three.

“Certainly the bridges could use some work,” said Rick Varga, terminal manager at USF Holland, which uses Belt Line Road “about 50 to 60 trips a day.”

Varga said the increased weight loads won’t affect his business much, USF Holland’s trucks don’t tandem loads, but other companies, such as UPS and FedEx might like the option to carry such heavy loads to the Interstate.

Further off is the upgrade of the rail line to the Rochelle hub.

Christiansen said that six companies use the tracks, but the grade only allows them to travel a comparatively snail-like 5 miles per hour on the line. That’s about seven hours, not taking into account any delays on the tracks.

He hopes those tracks could be upgraded so they can handle 25-mile-per-hour limits, making the seven-hour trip last slightly more than an hour. That was one of the main reasons for the formation of the Winnebago County Rail Authority, formed about a month ago, as a clearing house to get state and federal grant rail upgrades.

Hubs, such as Rochelle, often bring in finishing businesses that put together raw materials from the products that are shipped in. As an example, Norman Walzer, senior researcher at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Government Studies said, a business might be established at the hub that will take potatoes from the west “and turn them into potato chips before they send them east.”

How much that would cost, and where the money would come from, still is up in the air.

“Right now we don’t have any figures in front of us — being a relatively new group — but we do expect those to come in soon,” said Dunn, who also is chairman of the Rail Authority.

“I know Chairman Christiansen’s focus is on cargo, Mayor (Larry) Morrissey’s focus is more on the passenger side. ... We’re looking to see what is out there for both.”

But the line upgrade to Rochelle is envisioned as cargo only for now, while passenger service is being looked at for higher-graded rails, extending east from Rockford to the Chicago suburbs and the Windy City itself.

Walzer believes Winnebago County might be making all the right moves as it starts to build its infrastructure.

“Right now it takes a train about the same time it takes to get across the country as it does to get from the north side to the south side of Chicago because of the lack of lines that are available and the congestion,” Walzer said. 

He’s been watching the development of the Rochelle hub closely and said if Rockford could tap into that market, the possibility for industrial growth is great.

For this area types of finishing businesses could be biofuel manufacturers, tool-and-die cutters or any other business that works with cargo cars full of goods.

He said Rockford and the surrounding area could turn out to be a viable alternative to the more-established Midwest hubs such as Chicago or St. Louis for companies that manufacture finished goods.

“The land’s relatively cheap, the labor in this area is less expensive,” Walzer said. “And you have access to air, interstate and rail cargo, the only thing you’re missing is water, but even that’s not a far trip.” 

Mike Wiser can be reached at (815) 987-1377 ormwiser@rrstar.com.