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Missouri pumps millions into rail safety in wake of deadly Amtrak crash

Mendon train crossing crash derailment Amtrak
Posted at 5:32 PM, Jun 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-30 14:48:26-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — During the first budgeting cycle since four people died after an Amtrak passenger train collided with a dump truck one year ago near Mendon, Missouri, state leaders pumped millions of dollars into railroad safety.

The state budget for Fiscal Year 2024, which begins July 1, includes roughly $83.5 million allocated to the Missouri Department of Transportation to improve railroad-crossing safety through a combination of dedicated taxes, a one-time expenditure of general funds and federal dollars.

RELATED | Complete coverage of Amtrak crash in Mendon

In recent years, Missouri has dedicated $7.5 million to such projects.

The bulk of the new money will come from a $50 million allocation from the state’s General Revenue Fund during FY2024.

Gov. Mike Parson had recommended a $35 million allocation — $25 million from general revenues and $10 million in federal money — to partner “with local communities and railroads to improve safety at public railroad crossings” among his budget priorities.

MoDOT — which is responsible for rail-crossing safety, rail construction and railroad-safety inspections in the state — requested $50 million.

“This funding could be used as a match to federal grant programs such as the Railroad Crossing Elimination Program or the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvement Program,” MoDOT said in its FY2024 Appropriations Request. “This investment would allow the department to complete an equivalent of six years of projects.

"The investment will be even greater if the department is successful in obtaining grants from the federal government. The current estimated cost to upgrade all public passive railroad crossings with flashing lights and gates is approximately $700 million and would take 23 years to complete.”

Ultimately, the Missouri legislature approved MoDOT’s request.

Those dollars are in addition to the $1.5 million generated annually for the Grade Crossing Safety Account from a 25¢ tax on all motor-vehicle registrations and renewals.

The tax money is collected and allocated “for protection of the public against hazards existing at railroad crossings” and was designed to fund safety improvements at 25 railroad crossings each year.

Missouri uses an additional $6 million annually from federal highway funds, which are designated for “highway and rail safety projects,” according to MoDOT.

Another $26 million for improvements will come from federal grant money through the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.

There are 6,564 rail crossings in Missouri — which has approximately 5,300 rail miles, the 11th-most among U.S. states, according to MoDOT — and approximately half are passive crossings with signs but no active-warning devices, like arms and bells or whistles.

More than 3,330 are at-grade public crossings, including 1,422 passive crossings that intersect with the state highway system or with city/county roads.

MoDOT said it costs $400,000 to add new lights and gates at a passive crossing. Rising construction costs mean the typical $7.5-million allocation only funds about 19 projects per year.

MoDOT completed 25 projects in FY2018, 21 in FY2019 and FY2022, 22 in FY2020 and only six in FY2021 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. It hopes to complete 22 in both FY2023 and FY2024.

But it’s unclear where those projects might be or if the Porche Prairie Avenue crossing — where a Chicago-bound Amtrak Southwest Chief crashed into a dump truck and derailed on June 27, 2022 — is on the list.

The crossing has remained closed since the crash, which killed four people and left dozens more injured.

The number of rail collisions has declined during the last four years from a high of 46 in 2018 to roughly 30 during each of the last four years, but the number of fatalities jumped in 2022.

Missouri had eight fatalities at railroad crossings in 2018 but averaged fewer than four per year from 2019 to 2021. There were 12 people killed in collisions with trains during 2022, according to MoDOT.