For railroads, 2015 was an eventful year, with Congress dedicating more than $10 billion toward rail and other freight infrastructure projects and acquiescing to demands by the rail industry to extend the deadline for costly safety improvements on trains.
The past few years have been good for members of Congress from Illinois too, who collected more than $635,000 in campaign donations from the rail industry.
Several members of the Illinois congressional delegation were prominent players in negotiating legislation involving the railroad industry, a natural role given that Illinois has the second-largest rail network in the nation, with roughly 10,000 miles of track and 17,000 workers.
“My vote is not for sale,” U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Ill., said in an email, a message echoed by other Congress members.
The rail industry said the intent of the donations was to show support for senators and representatives who understand the importance of its business.
Critics, meanwhile, say the timing of some campaign contributions raises questions about improper influence and the need for campaign finance reforms.
“The system is as much legalized shake-down as legalized bribery,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit that advocates for campaign finance reform, based in Washington, D.C. “Business feels strongly that you have to pay to play.”
Chicago is the nation’s rail hub, but not an efficient one. Despite recent investments in infrastructure, it still takes 32 hours to transport freight through the Chicago area via rail, frustrating shippers. Motorists also gripe about getting stuck at the many grade-level rail crossings where trains carrying everything from oil and coal to food and farm products rumble through.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., played crucial roles in a 2015 transportation bill that, among other things, authorized $10.8 billion in federal funding for freight projects, including efforts to untangle rail bottlenecks in the Chicago area by building underpasses and overpasses to separate freight trains from roads and passenger trains.
Durbin and Lipinski were part of a conference committee that ironed out differences between the House and Senate versions of the funding bill, resulting in a bipartisan compromise that easily passed and became law in December.
In November, when final negotiations were underway, the political action committees formed by four major freight railroads — BNSF Railway, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific, all operating in Illinois — donated $5,000 apiece, $20,000 total, to one of Durbin’s political funds, records show.
A Durbin spokesman said the timing was a coincidence, with PACs tending to give donations toward the end of the year.
“We’re supportive of candidates who are supportive of our industry,” BNSF spokesman Mike Trevino said, speaking generally.
Durbin is not up for re-election in 2016 but, like many in Congress, can use his political funds to distribute money to other candidates.
Lipinski, who is running for another term in 2016, received $25,000 from the railroad PACs in 2015, records show.
In December, Durbin led nine other Illinois Democrats in writing a letter to the Surface Transportation Board, asking the panel to take a hard look at a takeover attempt of Norfolk Southern by Canadian Pacific. Norfolk Southern was trying to fend off the takeover, and Durbin and the others spoke up for Norfolk Southern, expressing concerns about Illinois jobs.
In November, a Durbin campaign fund received a $5,000 contribution from Norfolk Southern’s PAC, which in 2015 also gave $5,000 to Lipinski’s campaign; $7,000 to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill.; $2,500 to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill.; and $1,000 to the campaign of U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., according to Federal Election Commission records. They all signed the letter with Durbin.
All told, Illinois members of Congress received $227,700 in campaign donations from railroad PACs in the first year of the 2015-2016 election cycle, and $407,600 during the two years of the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to records from the FEC and the Center for Responsive Politics. Four of those members are on key transportation-related committees and fielded the largest donations.
The PACs are funded with employee contributions. Unlike state and local politicians, federal candidates cannot accept direct corporate contributions.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who faces re-election this year, was a big recipient of railroad PAC donations, receiving $28,000 in 2015. Kirk played a key role in enhancing a low-interest loan program for railroad infrastructure last year.
Kirk, Durbin and U.S. Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., successfully pushed for changes to cut red tape and expand eligibility for $35 billion in loans for railroad projects through the Federal Railroad Administration, the federal agency regulating the rail industry. Among other things, the loans may help pay for the renovation of Chicago’s historic Union Station, which serves Amtrak and Metra.
Another critical issue for the railroads in 2015 was the end-of-the-year deadline — set seven years ago — to install high-tech safety equipment in trains, or “positive train control,” that could override human error and prevent collisions. Industry leaders said that wasn’t enough time.
“Look, this was a law that was passed that required technology that did not exist. So it had to be created, and it had to be tested to see if it functioned as it was intended,” BNSF’s Trevino said.
During the summer, railroads warned Congress that it was impossible to meet the deadline, and they would be forced to shut down to avoid hefty fines.
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill., said she heard from “farmers, manufacturers and retailers in Illinois” in support of the extension “to avoid disruption of supply of vital commodities.”
The Illinois delegation got on board and this past September, 14 of the 18 U.S. House members co-sponsored a bill to extend the deadline. Both U.S. senators from Illinois agreed. Ultimately, Congress granted a five-year extension.
“It’s not something that we’ve been ignoring. It’s something that’s been a priority,” said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, who relayed that railroads have spent $6 billion on the safety improvements and will spend at least $3 billion more to finish the job.
The rail industry scored another victory in December, when a Lipinski-sponsored amendment to the funding bill passed, requiring the retrofitting of older tank cars to help prevent explosions and fires. The rail industry lobbied for the safety measure, knowing the costs would be paid by the oil shipping companies that own the tank cars.
Lipinski acknowledged about his campaign fundraising, “I solicit the railroads as I solicit a lot of entities, the PACS, political action committees, that are out there. . . . It’s one of the industries that gives to me.”
But Lipinski said donations don’t influence him.
“I don’t think my actions change in any kind of way. It’s important that things get done here in Chicago, for moving freight through the area, for getting other things done to help alleviate all the issues that my constituents face with getting stuck at rail crossings, or any of the other issues that they have because of inconvenience that railroads cause to them,” he said.
Sandy Bergo and Chuck Neubauer are reporters for the Better Government Association.