CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga (AP) — With the rail industry relying on longer and longer trains to cut costs, the Biden administration is handing out $570 million in grants to help eliminate many railroad crossings in 32 states, including Georgia.
The grants announced Monday will contribute to building bridges or underpasses at the sites of more than three dozen crossings that delay traffic and sometimes keep first responders from where help is desperately needed, including several in Chatham County.
In some places, trains routinely stretching more than 2 miles (3.2 km) long can block crossings for hours, cutting off access to parts of towns and forcing pedestrians to attempt the dangerous act of climbing through trains that could start moving without warning.
“We see countless stories of people unable to get to work on time, goods being blocked from getting where they need to be and first responders being delayed by these trains that can be slowed or stopped — even seeing images of children having to crawl between or under freight trains in order to get to school,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said.
In our area, in March of this year, a train blocked a Rincon neighborhood entrance for nearly 4 hours due to a malfunction causing residents to be stuck witth no way out while the train was repaired.
In addition to problems associated with blocked crossings, roughly 2,000 collisions are reported at railroad crossings every year. Nearly 250 deaths were recorded last year in those car-train crashes.
In recent years, the major freight railroads have overhauled their operations to rely on fewer, longer trains so they can use fewer crews and locomotives as part of efforts to cut costs.
The railroads insist those changes haven’t made their trains riskier, but regulators and Congress are scrutinizing their operations closely after several recent high-profile derailments. And the problems at rail crossings are well documented.
These grants are part of $3 billion in funding approved in the $1 trillion infrastructure law for these rail crossing projects that will be doled out over the next five years.
A number of the 63 projects that will receive grants involve only planning and design work for eliminating crossings in the future, but most of the money will go toward physical improvements at crossings and eliminating longstanding problems.
Several railroads and crossing in Chatham County are among those being repaired with $1,870,000 in funding being allocated to The Chatham Multimodal Community Improvement Project.
The project will fund planning and project development for a track relocation and grade separation. It will also eliminate eleven at-grade crossings on CSX and Norfolk Southern right-of-way and enable longer trains to enter an existing port facility in the cities of Savannah, Garden City, and Port Wentworth. This project aims to improve access to the Port of Savannah, allow the operation of longer trains, and improve mobility for residents in the area by removing rail lines that bisect neighborhoods. A combination of funding from Chatham County, CSX, and Georgia Ports Authority will contribute funds for a 60 percent non-Federal match.
In each of these grants, states and cities — sometimes with the help of the railroads — must cover at least 20% of the project cost.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.