St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By: Ken Leiser

(KRT) - The White House's proposed federal transportation spending plan could spell the end of the line for a program aimed at preventing accidents at the nation's railroad crossings.

Under the plan, the administration would no longer require states to spend $155 million a year of their federal transportation aid on rail highway crossings. Missouri's share of the federal money is about $4 million annually, while Illinois receives about $8 million.

Instead, the crossing money - distributed until now under the federal government's Section 130 program - would go to the states in a form that would give them greater latitude in how it is used to improve transportation safety.

Not long after Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta unveiled the transportation spending proposal last month, a railroad trade association voiced concern about elimination of the Section 130 program.

While not a significant line item in any state highway budget, industry officials say the rail highway crossing program has helped in significantly reducing the carnage at the nation's crossings over the past three decades.

Between 1975 and 2002, the number of collisions at highway rail grade crossings plunged from 12,126 to 3,066. The number of crossing deaths was cut by more than half over that span, too, from 917 to 355.

Rail safety experts also credit the Operation Lifesaver education program, tougher law enforcement efforts and various engineering improvements for the safety gains.

"We think that (program) is a very large part of the reason that grade crossing accidents and fatalities have both been cut sharply over the last 20 years," said Tom White, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads.

Edward Hamberger, the association's president, said in a May letter that the group was "strongly opposed" to eliminating the railroad crossing program and urged state highway officials to continue their support for it.

“Now is not the time to do away with a tried and true highway safety program," Hamberger wrote to the state highway group.

The American Association of State and Highway Transportation Officials wants to keep the rail crossing program alive and to even increase the funding that flows to its member states, said Leo Penne, the organization's program director for intermodal and industry activities.

The current $155 million-a-year level has not kept pace with inflation since the mid-1980s.

President George W. Bush's administration believes that its proposal - and that is all it is at this point - would bolster transportation safety by giving the states more flexibility in spending their money, said Warren Flatau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

There will be no net loss of safety funds as a result of the proposal, federal transportation officials say.

"For our part, the FRA will continue to work in close cooperation with the state departments of transportation in providing technical guidance, assistance and recommendations in addressing grade crossing safety concerns," Flatau said.

But railroad safety advocates fear that rail crossing safety will lose what little money it gets if the projects are forced to compete with other needs.

"I would hate to see them bring it in and not earmark it toward railroad safety because chances are that they would forget about it," said Denny Moore, a trustee for the nonprofit Angels on Track Foundation. "They would use it somewhere else."

Moore's teenage son Ryan was killed at a crossing in 1995. The nonprofit foundation promotes railroad grade crossing safety in Ohio.

Meanwhile, efforts to draft a new six-year, $247-billion transportation spending blueprint are moving forward in Congress.

Whether states will be required to continue spending prescribed amounts on rail crossings is still a topic for debate, although several sources believe Section 130 will survive. Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) has introduced a bill that not only would preserve the program but also increase national spending to at least $300 million.

In Missouri, the state tackles its problem crossings using its share of the federal money - stuck at about $3.998 million a year since 1991 - and another $1 million generated by a special tax on vehicle licensing.

The state and railroads review grade crossings to compile a list of the most dangerous. The projects are ranked in order of priority, and about 25 to 35 are funded each year.

The state, for instance, helped improve the Rock Hill Road crossing over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks in Webster Groves, once listed in a federal analysis as one of the 10 most dangerous in the state.

The crossing has a full set of lights and gates. But for some reason, when no trains were coming, southbound motorists occasionally were confused and made left turns from Rock Hill onto the tracks instead of nearby Lockwood Avenue.

"There was uniform recognition by the railroad, by the state and by us that that was a problem," said Webster Groves Public Works Director Dennis Wells.

Nothing - signs, striping, lighting - prevented the occasional wrong turns.

Eighty percent of the $443,143 cost to realign a section of Rock Hill near the tracks was covered using federal money from the federal program.

The city and Union Pacific also chipped in for the project, which was largely completed last summer.

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