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The Biden administration is opening up a new competitive funding program to eliminate crossings where trains and vehicles can collide after two major crashes in the past week put a spotlight on the risks.
The Transportation Department announced Thursday that more than $573 million would be available this year under the new program, which was created by last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58).
The administration announced the funding days after an Amtrak train collided with a dump truck in Missouri, killing at least four people. An Amtrak train also collided with a car in California this past weekend, killing three.
The department said the crashes in Missouri and California “underscored the tragic consequences of collisions between trains and vehicles that occur throughout the country.”
There were roughly 2,148 grade crossing incidents last year, which left 236 dead and 662 injured. Federal Railroad Administration head Amit Bose said in a statement that the program “will make many grade crossings safer or eliminate them altogether in the coming years.”
The funding was made available as investigators look into the causes of the crashes. Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, said this week at a press conference that the crash in Missouri occurred at a “passive grade crossing,” which has stop and crossing signs but no warning lights or bells.
About 50% of crossings in the US are passive, Homendy said. The NTSB has recommended for years that such crossings be closed, consolidated, separated from the road, or enhanced with gates, lights, and bells. Since 1998, NTSB has also recommended technology in vehicles to alert drivers of a train on a crossing.
“We still don’t see action on that, it’s been 24 years,” she said. “Lives could be saved.”
The Missouri Department of Transportation confirmed to the NTSB that this crossing was among those that it already wanted to upgrade. Homendy said she was told by the state that making the crossing active would cost about $400,000.
“The fewer points we have in the country where it’s even physically possible for a train and a car to collide, the safer this country will be,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview on Nightly News with Lester Holt on NBC this week.
The department said in the notice for the funding, which was submitted Thursday to the Federal Register, that the FRA wants to promote grade separations and closed crossings via track relocation.
A spokesperson for Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the senator believes “the safest crossing is no crossing.”
House appropriators called highway-rail grade crossing collisions the second leading cause of rail-related fatalities in the US, and urged the FRA to continue research and development on technology solutions, in a Transportation-Housing and Urban Development funding bill report released Wednesday.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at email@example.com