The federal government is spending billions of dollars on bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure to manage traffic over, under, and around railroad tracks. But for many residents and local officials, it is an imperfect way to ease congestion on roads that are frequently blocked by freight trains.
To take advantage of federal funds, communities must find a way to cover a portion of the cost of expensive upgrades. In addition, it may be difficult or impossible to build bridges and tunnels.
Some towns and cities have successfully worked with railroads to reschedule operations or move tracks away from busy roads. But many local officials complain that the railroads are often unwilling to help, leaving communities with few options.
“Everyone loves the trains and we appreciate the economic benefits of it, but we’re tired of being held hostage,” said Brad Rogers, a member of the Elkhart County Commission in Indiana.
A decade ago, when he was sheriff, Mr. Rogers sent deputies to issue tickets to Norfolk Southern crews whose trains were obstructing traffic. The tickets helped draw attention to the blocked crossings and congestion was reduced for a time. But the railroad sued the state, and Indiana’s Supreme Court overturned a law that authorized local officials to fine the railroad for blocking the crossing.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents the major freight railroads, has said that its members work with local officials to reduce crossing congestion whenever possible, but the problem is complex and infrastructure improvements are needed. The result of years of limited public funding for
“When railroads began connecting the country, people put down roots and built communities next to them,” John Gray, the association’s senior vice president, said in a statement. “Railroads allowed roads to cross the tracks using grade crossings rather than grade separations, as was the norm in populated areas of most other developed regions of the world. Public organizations, always eager to save a few dollars, immediately agreed.
Most states regulate blocked crossings, but courts have struck down many of those laws, determining that only the federal government can create and enforce such regulations. Indiana and about 20 other states recently joined Ohio in asking the US Supreme Court to determine when states can issue such rules.
Congress provided nearly $3 billion in 2021 to finance projects that would ease congestion at often-blocked railroad crossings. In June, the Biden administration awarded the first round of grants from that fund, approximately $570 millionImproving over 400 level crossings.
Houston would get $37 million to build four underpasses and finish seven crossings. Pelham near Birmingham, Ala. will receive approximately $42 million to build a bridge and the elimination of two level crossings on the road dividing the city. Olathe, Kansas, near Kansas City, will get about $18 million to build an overpass with sidewalks that will allow children to walk to school and connect cyclists and pedestrians to a trail system.
“What’s exciting about this moment is that for the first time there is specific, dedicated funding – and quite a lot of it – to address this,” Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, said in an interview.
Even before Congress provided this funding, some local governments had found ways to reduce the impact of trains blocking crossings. In Utah, community groups are building a pedestrian bridge that will cross three Union Pacific Rail lines and two local transit lines near a high school in Salt Lake City. Roads are often blocked due to overcrowding there, forcing some residents to duck or crawl under trains.
But some communities can’t match the funds for bridge and tunnel projects or pay for maintenance. In some areas, it may not be practical to build an overpass or underpass.
Many communities have opted for cheaper solutions.
West Springfield and Agawam officials in Massachusetts sought federal funding to build a bridge over a railroad crossing along the road connecting the towns, but a grant was not received. So the authorities have to rely on flashing light signals that warn people when the train is crossing the road.
Those lights have helped but it has increased congestion on other roads. And emergency medical personnel are forced to drive farther still to avoid blocked crossings.
Bill Sapelli, the mayor of Agawam, said, “We can’t even begin to fathom the extent of the damage.” “If they went around instead of taking the shortest route and nobody got through, and it was a matter of minutes, that makes a difference.”
Mr. Rogers, Indiana’s commissioner, recently visited a town that is using a system developed by Tranfo, a Canadian firm. The company uses acoustic sensors and software to identify incoming and stopped trains. That information can be sent on road signs, emergency dispatchers or social media feeds.
“We wanted to resolve this with the train companies, but obviously that’s not going to happen,” Mr Rogers said. “So we’re trying to think outside the box.”
mark walker Contributed reporting.