Cantwell Introduces Bipartisan Bill to Address Train Crossings in Washington State That Create Safety Hazards and Snarl Traffic

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) introduced legislation that will provide $500 million annually for five years to help states, cities, and Tribes plan and construct grade crossing separation projects, as well as other track relocation projects to improve safety or reduce congestion.

“Communities throughout Washington state know the safety and congestion challenges posed by at-grade crossings,” Senator Cantwell said. “Too many people are injured or killed at at-grade crossings, and the safest crossing is one that does not exist. Crossings can also delay the movement of people and goods all across the United States, hurting our competitiveness. With the volume of freight shipments projected to increase 17% by the year 2030, it is critical we act now to address this urgent infrastructure need. The legislation Senator Blunt and I are introducing today would authorize grants for state, local, and Tribal governments to eliminate at-grade crossing conflicts to improve safety and help the U.S. economy by decreasing freight congestion.”

Train passage through at-grade crossings can block traffic for hours at a time, separating neighborhoods and towns in two. While rail is consistently rated one of the safest modes of transportation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, highway-rail grade crossings are the second-leading cause of rail-related fatalities. Grade separation projects would eliminate these intersections, greatly improving safety and mobility for communities across Washington and the country.

Recent Examples of At-Grade Crossing Accidents and Traffic Delays in Washington State:

  • In Auburn, a woman from Federal Way was killed when her car collided with a freight train in an at-grade crossing. (2020)
  • In Benton County, a vehicle got stuck when driving over a railroad crossing. Luckily, no one was injured but the truck was hit by the train and dragged the length of a football field. (2020)
  • In Burlington, a routine traffic stop turned tragic when a father of two was trying to pull over but instead was caught on the tracks at a rail crossing, causing a deadly crash. (2019)
  • In Edmonds, a train blocked all waterfront access for three hours, requiring first responders to crawl through a rail car to respond to several people with medical emergencies, including a pregnant woman due to give birth. (2016)
  • In Kelso, a man and a woman were in a fatal collision with an Amtrak Cascades where the private rail crossing had no warning devices or crossing arms to alert drivers that a train was coming. (2017)
  • In Seattle, the opening of the Lander Street Bridge which eliminated an at-grade crossing is expected to reduce 4.5 hours of daily delays caused by over 100 daily crossings. (2020)
  • In Spokane, a driver attempting to turn their car around became stuck at a train crossing. The driver was able to escape safely but her car was hit by a train. (2020)
  • In Yakima County, a semi-truck hauling farm equipment collided with a train near State Route 22 and Phillips Road, causing three locomotives and eight empty grain containers to derail. (2020)

Chair Cantwell has been a leading and vocal advocate for at-grade rail crossing reform and safety. In March of this year, she released a report studying and assessing safety and efficiency concerns at at-grade railroad crossings, finding current federal programs are not sufficient to address these pressing issues of safety and congestion. Also in March, Cantwell called for robust funding for major infrastructure projects, including rail crossings. A longtime champion of infrastructure investment, Chair Cantwell created the nation’s first multimodal freight grant program in 2016 to deliver $5.5 billion to freight projects across the country.

Just this month, Cantwell was a keynote speaker during a Brookings Institution event on rebuilding America’s infrastructure, where she spoke on the at-grade crossings issue: “We need to do more to help in very, very basic ways at at-grade crossings. At-grade crossings delay the movement of freight across the United States in practically every state in the United States.”

Voices in Support:

Peter King, CEO, Association of Washington Cities: “Unsafe rail crossings plague many cities in Washington. Fixing these crossings is very expensive, often millions of dollars more than a local community can afford. We are grateful to Senator Cantwell for her leadership in tackling this crucial transportation issue with funding that improves safety as well as freight mobility.”

Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies: “Railroads strongly support this common-sense solution to increase safety, reduce emissions and enhance transportation. AAR looks forward to working with Sen. Cantwell and Sen. Blunt to advance this much-needed program, which will dramatically benefit the communities in which our members serve and improve the mobility of people and goods.”

Clarence Anthony, Executive Director and CEO of the National League of Cities: “When an ambulance is on one side of the railroad tracks and the hospital is on the other, the safety challenge of blocked crossings is clear. The Railroad Crossing Elimination Act will allow cities to finish more rail-road separation projects that keep traffic moving over and under the rail tracks while keeping our communities safe. The National League of Cities and America’s local leaders thank Chair Cantwell and Senator Blunt for leading on this critical legislation to address rail blockages clogging up the heart of too many cities and towns across the county.”

American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials: “Reducing the number of highway and railway at-grade crossings blocked by trains is crucial for highway and pedestrian safety, as well as better connecting communities separated by railroad tracks. AASHTO thanks Senator Cantwell and Senator Blunt for their targeted effort to support critical grade separation projects.”

Chuck Baker, President, American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association: “We welcome Senator Cantwell and Senator Blunt’s introduction of the Railroad Crossing Elimination Act. While short line railroads strive to work closely with our communities and customers to avoid causing any unwelcome impacts, there are many opportunities throughout the country to eliminate highway-rail grade crossings to improve the mobility of people and goods and improve the health and safety of communities. If passed, this legislation will help provide funds to our government and tribal partners to allow them to work with us to close, relocate, or improve many challenging crossings, and we look forward to doing so whenever and wherever possible.”

The full text of the bill is available HERE.