Leaders in Congress have made clear in that independent of action on President Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” they will move forward with a large-scale reauthorization of the nation’s surface transportation law. Leaders in both Chambers are aiming for late-May action, meaning stakeholders everywhere have a small window to shape the bill.
“Though a surface transportation reauthorization bill is the only must-do legislation by Sept. 30, members of both parties and both chambers of Congress expressed hopes during a March 25 briefing to NACo members that an infrastructure bill would continue to foster common ideological ground,” writes NACo’s Charlie Ban.
County leaders have no shortage of priorities, as do railroads I represent at the Association of American Railroads (AAR) – a partner of NACo. One particular area that railroads and local leaders should work together on is expanding federal funding and grant program options for improving and/or separating at-grade crossings between rail and passenger vehicle traffic. Substantive progress could reduce mostly preventable accidents and fatalities, increase mobility for motorists and in turn improve quality of life in communities.
As a key solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, greater freight fluidity may also help make railroads more competitive in serving businesses and taking freight off local roads and highways.
The reality is that while grade crossing collisions are down 36% since 2000 thanks in part to sustained federal funding, more can and should be done. As NACo outlined in recent communication to Congressional transportation leaders, in keeping with the resolution they adopted in 2020, “there are over 211,000 active highway-rail grade crossings in America, many of which are located within county boundaries.”
The goal should be to close, separate or upgrade (through warning devices, gates or other technologies) as many of these crossings that make local and economic sense for both localities and railroads.
Alongside the National League of Cities (NLC), NACo has called for a new, $2.5 billion discretionary at-grade-crossings program, which would feature a federal share of 65 percent for projects over $40 million and 85 percent for projects under $40 million. Under the program right-of-way owners (mainly railroads) would again be responsible for 10 percent of project costs. The AAR sees great merit in such an effort.
We also continue to advocate for other ways to address grade crossings within the confines of current infrastructure policymaking, including:
- Enact S. 1465, cosponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), which would establish a competitive grant program for highway-rail grade crossing improvement projects. This would be a $500 million program.
- Prioritize and improve the Section 130 Program by ensuring continues to receive dedicated formula funding out of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and that funding for the program be maintained at current levels ($245 million in FY 2020) or increased. Ideally, Congress could increase incentive payments for grade crossing closures from the current cap of $7,500 to $100,000, expand flexibility by eliminating the arbitrary 50% cap on spending for hazard elimination projects and enable costs incurred by public or private entities for preliminary engineering for grade crossing projects to be counted toward the non-federal share.
- Prepare for the future, including a requisite for future fleets of automated vehicles to provide grade crossing warnings and/or prevent incursions into grade crossings when gates or other protective devices have been activated.
- Expand USDOT discretionary grant programs. For example, enable or incentivize states to bundle grade crossing projects into a single grant application under applicable discretionary grant programs, such as RAISE, INFRA or CRISI.
In sum, industry and community leaders, including county commissioners, are aligned in the need to improve at-grade crossings. While we will remain vigilant in educating the public on grade crossing safety, we all see a unique opportunity to achieve greater progress. Let’s work together to do so.