A Battle of the Transport Titans

Truckers, Rail Ready to Face Off

Posted February 27, 2009 at 6:18pm

Correction Appended

Northwest of cargo-rich Chicago O’Hare International Airport sits an industrial corridor so vast that it might as well be its own city.

In fact, it is. At just 11 square miles and with a population of 35,000, Elk Grove Village is the Land of Lincoln’s second-most industrialized municipality outside of the Windy City.

An integrated web of warehouses and manufacturing sites connected by its own rail line and congested byways, the village is home to the nation’s largest “contiguous industrial park,” made up of nearly 4,000 businesses that ship and receive 90,000 tons of freight per day, the village’s mayor, Craig Johnson, likes to boast.

“It’s always been the epicenter of transportation,” Johnson said. “This village was built with the business park [and] the expressways in mind, which weren’t yet built.”

Johnson also acknowledges that his tiny town may become a microcosm — and perhaps a participant — in an upcoming transportation fight pitting countless interests in a free-for-all for a cut of the soon-to-be introduced $450 billion-plus transportation bill.

“We’ve never had a better opportunity,” he said. “And we’re not just looking for more highways.”

All parties appear to be waiting until legislation emerges to declare all-out war on each other. Still, even to a casual observer, the ongoing advertising blitz between the trucking and rail interests are the lobbying equivalent of hearing war drums in the distance: The fight is nigh.

One recent print ad placed by a group affiliated with Association of American Railroads reads: “One freight train can carry the load of 280 trucks. So when you consider that Americans spend more than 4 billion hours stuck in traffic each year, it’s obvious moving more goods by freight rail is a good idea.”

In another, the American Trucking Association ran an ad with the headline “Trains Don’t Deliver Where America Lives.” The picture showed a set of rail tracks superimposed on a homeowner’s front yard.

Robert Poole, the libertarian Reason Foundation’s director of transportation studies, said the expected truckers-vs.-railroad matchup presents “a complicated picture” vis-à-vis the new environmentally conscious White House and bolstered Democratic majorities.

“With more emphasis on greenhouse gases per ton mile, there’s absolutely no question that rail-per-ton mile is lower greenhouse gases, lower energy use,” Poole said. “The problem is you really have to look at the total trip, from origin to destination.”

Elk Grove Village sits in the northeastern corner of the district of Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). The lawmaker succeeded ex-Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) in 2006 and represents a district that allegedly has the most railroad crossings per capita.

Already, Roskam’s office is preparing for the role that it likely will play in the upcoming debate, reaching out to Johnson and other local officials recently for their transportation priorities. “It’s planes, trains and automobiles all around,” Roskam transportation aide David Mork said last week.

For now, Jennifer Macdonald, an Association of American Railroads lobbyist, said the nation’s railroads are reserving judgment until Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) produces a bill, which is expected this spring.

“Until we see an actual product, we haven’t taken a position, but certainly we would like to see a continued flexibility that you saw in the stimulus to be able to fund freight projects where there is a public benefit,” Macdonald said.

The America Trucking Association is less vague on what it hopes is and is not in the bill. Lobbyist Tim Lynch said that “we don’t particularly like” when federal highway tax money is used to finance railroad projects.

“The whole idea of a highway system as a user-financed system gets turned on its head,” he said. “We shouldn’t be fighting over that pot of money because they don’t pay into that pot of money. There’s no rail tax that goes into the Highway Trust Fund, so there shouldn’t be a fight about money.

“We’ve been fairly open about our willingness to paying additional tax to support the program, but we want to make sure that those revenues are going to addressing highway freight bottlenecks,” he added.

Stuck in the middle of the expected donnybrook is the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represents hundreds of thousands of rail and trucking employees, including legions of workers for the shipper UPS Inc. — which happens to be one the rail industries biggest customers.

But with an expected half-trillion price tag, Teamsters’ legislative director Fred McLuckie said there should be money to satisfy both interests, possibly preventing any uncomfortable moments for union officials.

“There’s enough capacity out there for both sides,” he said. “We manage to balance our perspective here in terms of getting money for rail improvements and for highway improvements as well.”

A House transportation staffer said the feud between truckers and railroads goes back decades, rooted in an sibling-like perception by both sides that the other is getting more federal perks.

“They’ve always been rivals,” the staffer said. “The railroads have always criticized the trucking industry because they use the roads and [the railroads] have to maintain their own tracks.”

And despite all the lobbying by transportation interests, the staffer said Oberstar is scrapping the traditional reauthorization process, starting over from scratch and likely ending the periodic ritual of transportation project wish lists.

Perhaps to Johnson’s delight, what may prevail are “coordinated intermodal” projects in and around Chicago that will alleviate choke points that clog up shipments around the country, the staffer said.

And in these times of big dreams and lean budgets, the aide warned all factions involved to keep cool heads, lest Oberstar becomes stingy with his authorizing pen.

“If there’s too much acrimony, it could poison the waters,” the staffer said. “That’s true not just in this case, but in any case where you have different factions trying to go after the same dollars.”

Correction: March 2, 2009

The article incorrectly identified the location of Elk Grove Village, Ill. It is northwest of O’Hare International Airport.