Nine railroad crossings along a 6-mile stretch of track in Baton Rouge will receive crossing gates and other safety upgrades under a $1.1 million federal grant announced Wednesday morning.
Six other crossings, most marked with only yield signs and located near those crossings slated for upgrades, will be closed under the grant.
The Federal Railroad Administration grant is designed to upgrade safety along a stretch of Kansas City Southern railroad tracks running north and south between North Street and Louise Street. The grant is part of a one-time $10 million program to eliminate hazards along rail lines that transport crude oil and ethanol, Sarah Feinberg, administrator of the railroad agency, said at a news conference in Brooks Park.
Since 2000, the railroad crossings targeted by the grant have been the site of 11 accidents causing four injuries, Feinberg said. An average of eight trains each day travel along the stretch of tracks, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.
Several of the crossings targeted for the safety upgrades are on busy downtown thoroughfares, including crossings on Government Street and Florida Boulevard.
All six of the crossings slated to be closed are on the lower half of the stretch of track, south of Government Street. Most of those crossings are on are small, residential streets, a short distance from those crossings scheduled for upgrades.
Louisiana, Feinberg said, ranked fifth in the nation in the number of deaths at railroad crossings in 2014 and has, like the rest of the country, seen an uptick in fatalities in the past couple of years.
“It’s deeply important to me and (the Federal Railroad Administration) to reverse that trend,” Feinberg said, adding that it isn’t yet clear what’s caused that increase in fatalities.
In 2014, a total of 267 people were killed in crashes at railroad crossings, a 16 percent increase over 2013, Feinberg said.
In Louisiana, 13 people died at railroad crossings in 2014, according to Federal Railroad Administration statistics.
Though final statistics for 2015 aren’t yet available, a fatal crash in Iberia Parish that killed five when a sedan was struck by an Amtrak passenger train has highlighted safety issues at railroad crossings.
U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, said the project announced Wednesday is “a step in the right direction.”
Graves said the major railroads and highways criss-crossing the state provide a major economic advantage but also pose safety issues at their intersections.
“There is a whole lot more that needs to be done,” he said.
Sean Joffrion, principal of McKinley Middle Magnet School on Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive, said many of his students use the crossings on their way to and from school each day.
Joffrion said the lack of lights or barriers at many of the crossings poses a danger to the children.
“None of these crossings are ideal,” Feinberg said.
Adding flashing lights and moving barriers at the remaining crossings should significantly reduce the risk of crashes, Feinberg said, adding that her agency also is encouraging law enforcement to more aggressively monitor and ticket motorists around railroad crossings.
Programs aimed at eliminating the danger entirely, though, come with extremely large price tags, Feinberg said.
“The safest thing you can possibly do at a railroad crossing is to separate the cars from the train … and have an underpass or an overpass,” Feinberg said. “That’s incredibly expensive. Until we’re able to do that at every crossing, we’re still going to have some risk.”
But Graves and Feinberg both pointed to advancing technology as another way to improve safety at railroad crossings.
Feinberg said the Federal Railroad Administration is releasing its database of railroad crossings to tech companies like Google to integrate the data into map and navigation apps and programs.
The program funding the upgrades in Baton Rouge is just one source of funding for railroad crossing safety projects, Feinberg said.
Eight other projects in seven other states also received grants — selected from 34 eligible applications — under the program, approved by Congress last year, Feinberg said.
The Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development applied for the grant and will coordinate the project, Feinberg said. No date has yet been set to start the work.
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole