When trains block a route, local officials have few options

The federal government spends billions of dollars on bridges, tunnels, and other infrastructure to direct traffic over, under, and around railroad tracks. But for many residents and local officials, this is an imperfect way to relieve congestion on roads often closed by freight trains.

To take advantage of federal funds, communities must find a way to cover a share of the cost of expensive upgrades. In addition, bridges and tunnels may be difficult or impossible to build.

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 trains and we appreciate the economic benefit of them, but we’re tired of being held hostage,” said Brad Rogers, a member of the Elkhart County Commission in Indiana.

A decade earlier, when he was sheriff, Rogers had sent deputies to issue tickets for southern Norfolk crews whose trains were holding up traffic. Tickets helped draw attention to blocked crossings, and congestion decreased for a time. But the railroad sued the state, and the Indiana Supreme Court struck down the law that allowed local officials to fine railroads to block the crossings.

The Association of American Railroad, which represents major freight rail lines, said its members are working with local officials to ease transit congestion when they can, but the problem is complicated by years of limited public funding to improve infrastructure.

“When the railroads began to connect the country, people put down roots and built communities alongside them,” John Gray, senior vice president with the association, said in a statement. “Railroads allowed roads to cross tracks using gradient crossings rather than grade separations, as is the case in populated areas in most other developed regions of the world. Public bodies, always eager to save a few dollars, willingly agreed.”

Most states regulate prohibited crossings, but the courts have overturned many of these laws, ruling that only the federal government can enact and enforce such rules. Indiana and about 20 other states recently joined Ohio in asking the US Supreme Court to determine that states can make such regulations.

Congress provided about $3 billion in 2021 to help fund projects that would ease congestion at frequently blocked railroad crossings. In June, the Biden administration awarded the first round of grants from this fund, About 570 million dollarsto make improvements to more than 400 crossings.

Houston will receive $37 million to build four tunnels and cancel seven crossings. Pelham, Ala., near Birmingham, will take home approximately $42 million to build a bridge and the cancellation of two railway crossings along the road that bisects the city. Olathe, Kansas, near Kansas City, will receive about $18 million to build a flyover with a sidewalk that will allow children to get to school and connect cyclists and pedestrians with a trail system.

“The exciting thing about this moment is for the first time that there’s specific, dedicated funding – and a lot of it – to tackle this,” Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview.

Even before Congress made these funds available, some local governments found ways to reduce the impact of trains closing crossings. In Utah, community groups are building a footbridge that will cross three Union Pacific railroads and two local transit lines near a high school in Salt Lake City. Congestion often blocks roads, forcing some residents to squeeze or crawl under trains.

But some communities cannot come up with the proper funds for bridge and tunnel projects or to pay for maintenance. In some areas, building bridges or tunnels may not be practical.

Many communities have opted for cheaper solutions.

Officials in West Springfield and Agawam, Massachusetts, sought federal funds to build a bridge over a railroad crossing along a connecting road between the cities, but did not receive a grant. So officials are left to rely on flashing lights to warn people when a train is crossing the road.

These lights helped but added congestion on other roads. Emergency medical workers are still forced to drive longer distances to avoid crossing closures.

“We can’t even measure the damage that might have been caused,” said Agwam Mayor Bill Sabelli. “If they walk around instead of taking the shortest route and someone can’t do it, and it’s within minutes, that makes a difference.”

Mr. Rogers, the Indiana State Commissioner, visited a city that uses a system developed by the Canadian company Trainfo. The company uses acoustic sensors and software to identify arriving and stopping trains. This information can be sent to traffic lights, emergency dispatchers or social media channels.

“We wanted to work this out with the train companies, but it doesn’t seem to be happening,” said Mr. Rogers. “So we’re trying to think outside the box.”

Mark Walker Contribute to the preparation of reports.