Grade-Crossing Safety: DOT Should Evaluate Whether Program Provides States Flexibility to Address Ongoing Challenges
Where roads and train tracks meet, accidents can be deadly. A federal program helps states fund projects to make these crossings safer.
State officials told us that the program's requirements favor certain projects, such as gates—but most of the crashes since 2009 have happened at crossings with gates, largely because of impatient drivers who drive through or go around. Officials said that the requirements may be preventing them from using more innovative approaches.
As greater rail and road use is expected in the future, we recommended that the Department of Transportation evaluate whether the program's requirements need to be more flexible.
This is a photo of where a railroad crosses a road with the gate down as a train races by.
What GAO Found
Research sponsored by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has identified driver behavior as the main cause of highway-rail grade crossing crashes and that factors such as train and traffic volume can contribute to the risk of a crash. (See figure.) Over 70 percent of fatal crashes in 2017 occurred at grade crossings with gates.
Examples of Drivers' Behavior Contributing to Crashes at Grade Crossings
To meet the requirements of the federal grade-crossing program, states are responsible for selecting and ensuring the implementation of grade-crossing improvement projects. Most state DOT officials and other relevant transportation officials use local knowledge of grade crossings to supplement the results of models that rank grade crossings based on the risk of an accident. These states generally consider the same primary risk factors, such as vehicle and train traffic. FRA is taking steps to improve the data used in its model to help states assess risk factors at grade crossings. For example, FRA's grade-crossing inspectors will review and identify issues with railroad- and state-reported inventory data. FRA is currently developing guidelines, which it plans to finalize by the end of 2018, to implement these inspections as it has for other types of FRA inspections.
Officials we spoke with in eight states reported challenges in pursuing certain types of projects that could further enhance safety, in part because of federal requirements. While safety has improved, many crashes occur at grade crossings with gates, and officials said there could be additional ways to focus program requirements to continue improving safety. States' and the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) reporting focuses on the program's funding and activity, such as the number and types of projects, yet the low number of crashes makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of projects in reducing crashes and fatalities. FHWA reports the program has been effective in reducing fatalities by about 74 percent since 1975. However, since 2009, annually there have been about 250 fatalities—almost one percent of total highway fatalities. FRA expects future crashes to grow, in part, due to the anticipated increase in rail and highway traffic. An evaluation of the program should consider whether its funding and other requirements allow states to adequately address ongoing safety issues. FHWA officials said they are not required to perform such evaluations. GAO has previously reported on the importance of program evaluations to determine the extent to which a program is meeting its objectives. An evaluation of the program could lead FHWA to identify changes that could allow states to more strategically address problem areas.
Why GAO Did This Study
Crashes at highway-rail grade crossings are one of the leading causes of railroad-related deaths. According to FRA data, in 2017, there were more than 2,100 crashes resulting in 273 fatalities. Since 2009 crashes have occurred at a fairly constant rate. The federal government provides states funding to improve grade-crossing safety through FHWA's Section 130 Program. The persistence of crashes and deaths raises questions about the effectiveness of the federal grade-crossing-safety program.
GAO was asked to review federal efforts to improve grade-crossing safety. This report examines: (1) the focus of FRA's grade-crossing-safety research, (2) how states select and implement grade-crossing projects and what data are available from FRA to inform their decisions, and (3) the challenges states reported in implementing and assessing projects and the extent to which FHWA assesses the program's effectiveness. GAO analyzed FRA data; reviewed FRA's, FHWA's, and states' documents; reviewed a study of states' selection of projects; and interviewed FRA and FHWA headquarters and field staff, and officials from a non-generalizable sample of eight states, selected to include a mix in the number of grade crossings and crashes, and geographic diversity.
GAO recommends that FHWA evaluate the program's requirements to determine if they allow states the flexibility to address ongoing safety issues. The Department of Transportation concurred with GAO's recommendation.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Federal Highway Administration||The Administrator of FHWA, working with FRA, should evaluate the Section 130 Program's requirements to determine whether they allow states sufficient flexibility to adequately address current and emerging grade-crossing safety issues. As part of this evaluation, FHWA should determine whether statutory changes to the program are necessary to improve its effectiveness. (Recommendation 1)||
The federal government provides states funding to improve grade-crossing safety through the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) Railway-Highway Crossings Program (commonly referred to as the Section 130 Program). FHWA uses a statutory formula to distribute to states Section 130 Program funds. There are also statutory requirements associated with how states can use the funds. In 2018, GAO reported that grade-crossing safety had improved by about 74 percent since 1975. However, since 2009, annually there had been about 250 fatalities--almost one percent of total highway fatalities. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) expects the traffic volumes to continue to increase and has expressed concern that grade-crossing crashes and fatalities may also increase. States had generally already used Section 130 Program funding to address safety at the riskiest grade crossings by adding protective measures, typically lights and gates. Yet crashes continue to occur at these improved grade crossings. Officials GAO spoke with in eight states reported challenges in pursuing certain types of projects that could further enhance safety, in part because of federal requirements. Officials said there could be additional ways to focus program requirements to continue improving safety, particularly because many crashes occur at grade crossings that already have protective devices such as gates. Given these trends and the challenges related to the requirements of the Section 130 Program, it was not clear whether the program remained effective in continuing to reduce the risk of crashes. Many state DOT officials said there may be an opportunity to more broadly assess the Section 130 Program at the national level. There could be ways to evaluate the program in a more comprehensive way; many state DOT officials told GAO such a comprehensive evaluation could help improve program effectiveness in a number of ways, including by re-examining eligibility requirements that limit the flexibility of states to consider other types of projects beyond engineering. GAO had previously reported on the importance of program evaluations to determine the extent to which a program is operating as intended and meeting its objectives. Without conducting a program evaluation, FHWA cannot ensure that the Section 130 Program is achieving the national goal of reducing fatalities and injuries. Accordingly, GAO recommended that the Administrator of FHWA evaluate the Section 130 Program's requirements to determine whether they allow states sufficient flexibility to adequately address current and emerging grade-crossing safety issues. As part of this evaluation, GAO recommended that FHWA determine whether statutory changes to the program are necessary to improve its effectiveness. In response to GAO's recommendation, FHWA, in cooperation with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, evaluated stakeholder views of the Section 130 Program requirements. This work highlighted a range of program requirements that may impact effective practices to improve grade-crossing safety. In November 2021, Congress made statutory changes to the Section 130 Program under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (enacted as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) which increase the flexibility of Section 130 Program requirements. For example, the law eliminated the requirement that at least 50 percent of program funds be used for "protective devices" and clarified that funds are now eligible for projects to reduce pedestrian fatalities and injuries from trespassing at grade crossings. As a result, FHWA and the states are better position to improve the Section 130 Program's effectiveness and address grade-crossing safety issues respectively.