Sneak Preview: DOT Agencies To Assess Highway-Rail Program

Jerry Ashworth
December 7, 2018 at 07:36:26 ET
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(The following was excerpted from a recent article in the Federal Grants Management Handbook.)/Two subagencies within the federal Department of Transportation (DOT) plan to collaborate to determine whether the requirements for using funds under the Railway Highway Crossings Program, known as the Section 130 Program, offer states enough flexibility to effectively address current and future safety issues where railroad tracks cross roadways, in response to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommendation.

According to DOT statistics, there are about 210,000 highway-rail at-grade crossing (i.e., “grade crossings”) nationwide. Such crossings are where public or private roads intersect with tracks at the same level as the roadway. Although the annual number of grade-crossing crashes has declined from 12,126 (resulting in 917 deaths) in 1975 to 2,117 (resulting in 273 deaths) in 2017, most of these reductions occurred from 1975 to 1985 as states closed or improved the most dangerous crossings. The number of grade crossing crashes (around 2,100) and fatalities (around 250) has remained consistent since 2009, but DOT’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) officials expect grade-crossing crashes and fatalities to increase as traffic volume increases. DOT officials attributed many of these crashes to risky driver behavior and poor judgement.

“The continued number of crashes and fatalities at grade crossings with devices intended to warn of a train’s presence call into question whether the Section 130 Program is structured to help states continue making progress toward the national goal to reduce fatalities and injuries,” GAO explained. “An evaluation of the program’s requirements could help determine whether Congress should consider better ways to focus federal funds to address the key factor in crashes — risky driver behavior.”

As a set-aside portion of DOT’s Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Highway Safety Improvement Program, FHWA provides Section 130 Program funds to state departments of transportation to eliminate hazards at highway-rail grade crossings. States determine what improvements need to be made at these crossings, and FHWA has oversight regarding the use of federal funds. Over the last 10 fiscal years, FHWA has distributed about $235 million annually to states under the Section 130 Program.

The Section 130 Program requires states to establish an implementation schedule for grade-crossing safety improvement projects that, at a minimum, include warning signs for all public grade crossings. In addition, at least 50 percent of this funding must be dedicated to installing protective devices at grade crossings, including traffic control devices, and states can use the remaining program funds to improve warning signs and pavement markings or to improve the way the roadway aligns with the tracks. FHWA employs a statutory formula that uses factors such as the number of grade crossings in each state to distribute to states Section 130 Program funds. Every two years, DOT provides a report to Congress on the progress that states are making in implementing projects to improve grade crossings.

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