(The Center Square) — The federal infrastructure bill provided millions to help communities close troubling grade crossings, but a U.S. senator from Georgia wants federal railroad authorities to take blocked railroad crossings more seriously.
“This is a major issue for communities across metro Atlanta and the state,” U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Georgia, said during a Monday event. “Blockages at rail crossings are not just an inconvenience; they’re a threat to health and to life.”
The senator pointed to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also called the Bipartisan Investment Law, which included more than $573.2 million in fiscal 2022 for the Railroad Crossing Elimination Grant Program. Data shows Georgia is among the worst states for grade crossing crashes, and according to Operation Lifesaver, citing preliminary Federal Railroad Administration statistics, Georgia ranked sixth for highway-rail grade crossing collisions in 2022.
“The good news is that [Congress] passed a bipartisan infrastructure law, a long overdue investment in upgrading America’s infrastructure,” Ossoff said. “…What I’m still not seeing yet from the FRA is the kind of attention to collecting reports from citizens and understanding exactly where the problematic crossings are so that they can coordinate with the rail operators to relieve them.
“So the good news is that the infrastructure law is going to help us get at this in the long run,” the senator added. “But the challenge remains getting federal railroad authorities to take it seriously.”
An FRA spokesman disputed Ossoff’s characterization, pointing to a December letter that FRA Administrator Amit Bose sent to Ossoff outlining the agency’s work.
“FRA pays close attention to the issue of blocked rail crossings across the country and takes the matter seriously,” Cory Gattie said in an email to The Center Square. “In 2019, we launched a Blocked Crossing Incident Reporter that we routinely encourage members of the public and law enforcement to report problematic crossings to so we can have a better understanding of the issue. Since [the program’s] inception, we’ve continued to improve the reporter, including making it bilingual and implementing user-friendly updates.”
According to the site, there are no federal laws or regulations about blocked crossings. The agency said it uses information submitted on the site to track blocked crossings’ locations and impacts.
“Outside of analyzing the data in the reporter, FRA often works with communities and railroads to find solutions, especially when emergency responder access is a concern,” Gattie added. “Such solutions could include the railroad voluntarily making operational changes to minimize such instances, as well as potential longer-term local infrastructure improvement projects such as grade separations.”
Grade separations could include rail overpasses or underpasses. Gattie pointed to projects in Houston, Texas, and Birmingham, Alabama, where the agency said it worked with local railroads and the communities to find solutions to blocked rail crossings.
As of about 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, there were 1,234 reports of blocked crossings in Georgia in the past 12 months, most of which (1,157) were for reports of a “stationary train,” followed by reports of moving train (41) or instances where a train was not present, but the lights or gates were activated (36).
By T.A. DeFeo | The Center Square contributor