In America today, nearly 600 people are killed and thousands more injured every year as a result of vehicle-train collisions at highway-rail grade crossings. A significant number of these accidents occur in states such as Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, California and Texas that have large numbers of rail-highway intersections.
In 1994, I travelled across northern Indiana aboard a QSX-500 CSX locomotive. I witnessed what engineers see every day -- numerous motorists darting across the railroad tracks before an oncoming train. From this experience, and from my work to improve safety at highway-rail grade crossings, I learned that engineering solutions, along with education and awareness about grade crossing safety, are key strategies that can effectively prevent grade crossing accidents.
My home state of Indiana ranks sixth in the nation in the number of public crossings with over 6,500. And every year Indiana is one of the top five states in the nation for numbers of injuries and fatalities caused by vehicle-train crashes. In 1995, Indiana ranked third for total vehicle-train crashes with 271, fifth for total fatalities from vehicle-train crashes with 29, and fourth for injuries as a result of vehicle-train crashes with 79.
Responding to this disturbing national trend, I began working in 1993 with then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and with the Indiana Department of Transportation to address this serious safety problem. We worked to find solutions that would help Indiana and other States make better use of available funds to target the nation's most hazardous rail crossings.
The federal government has played an important role in helping states eliminate accidents and fatalities at public highway-rail intersections since passage of the Highway Safety Act by Congress in 1973. This Act created the Rail-Highway Crossing Program (also known as the Section 130 Program). Since the program's inception, more than 28,000 improvement projects have been undertaken -- from installation of warning gates, lights and bells, to pavement improvements and grade separation construction projects.
Following discussions with federal and state officials about this pressing safety problem, I joined with Senator Coats in March, 1994, to request the General Accounting Office (GAO) to conduct a thorough review of rail safety programs in Indiana and other rail-intensive states experiencing a high number of vehicle-train crashes at grade crossings.
Released in August, 1995, the report -- Railroad Safety: Status of Efforts to Improve Railroad Crossing Safety (RCED-95-191) -- evaluated the best uses of limited federal funds for rail crossing safety, reviewed policy changes that help state and local governments address rail safety issues, and recommended strategies to encourage interagency and intergovernmental cooperation.
The report found that in addition to states' efforts to reduce accidents and fatalities through emphasis on education programs, engineering solutions, and enforcement of traffic laws, changes to the federal funding formulas would target highway funds to areas of greatest risk.
Under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), the Section 130 program was continued -- with a portion of the ten percent of a state's Surface Transportation Program (STP) safety funds dedicated to highway rail crossing improvement and hazard elimination projects.
The GAO reported that key indicators or "risk factors" used to assess rail grade crossing safety are not taken into account when STP funds are distributed among states. The GAO outlined the Federal Highway Administration's (FHWA) work to review options for STP formula changes that adjust the current flat percentage allocation to include these risk factors. Applying these factors to the funding formula creates a more targeted and focused process that maximizes the effectiveness of federal funds.
The risk factors criteria considered by FHWA include a state's share of the national total for number of public crossings, number of public crossings with passive warning devices, total number of accidents and total number of fatalities occurring as a result of vehicle-train collisions at highway rail grade crossings.
For example, while Indiana received 3.4 percent of Sec. 130 funds in FY 1995, the Hoosier State experienced 6.1 percent of the nation's accidents and 5.9 percent of the fatalities as a result of vehicle-train collisions from 1991-1993. In addition, Indiana has about four percent of the nation's public rail crossings.
Recent preliminary estimates of STP apportionments under a risk-based apportionment formula indicate Indiana's share of Sec. 130 funds could increase by fifty-four percent, from the FY 1997 level of $4.96 million to $7.63 million. Overall, about 23 states would receive a substantial increase in Sec. 130 funds for grade crossing improvements, including: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin.
While the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT) spends between $7 million and $10 million a year to improve safety at highway rail grade crossings, a fifty-four percent increase in Sec. 130 funds would allow INDOT and other state departments of transportation additional resources for these projects.
Responding to these recommendations, I introduced legislation in December, 1995, and again this year, aimed at improving the distribution of these safety funds. S. 284, the Highway-Rail Grade Crossing Safety Formula Enhancement Act, would replace the current flat percentage system with a formula that uses the risk-based criteria to better target existing funds where they can be most effective.
S.284 addresses the allocation problem by adjusting the funding formula for the STP to include an apportionment of funds to states for the Sec. 130 Program based on a three-year average of these risk factors. I want to express my appreciation to the FHWA and to the Federal Railroad Administration for their valuable assistance in preparing this legislation.
This legislation will help improve the way the federal government targets existing resources to enhance safety on our nation's highways and along our rail corridors. This legislation does not call for new federal spending, but rather for a more equitable and effective distribution of existing highway funds to states to enhance safety at dangerous highway-rail grade crossings.
This legislation addresses one aspect of the grade crossing safety problem by refining a key provision of the existing ISTEA law. Using this proposal as a foundation, I am hopeful the Congress will craft provisions for the highway reauthorization bill that recognize the overall efforts of states to implement comprehensive rail safety programs. An effective grade crossing safety program integrates construction improvement projects with driver education and awareness programs, including the valuable work performed by Operation Lifesaver. An effective program also integrates crossing closures, vigorous enforcement of crossing traffic laws and assessments of crossing inventories.
I will work with my colleagues this year to help assure Congress passes highway reauthorization legislation that makes the best use of available federal resources while encouraging states to continue pursuing comprehensive efforts to address their public grade crossing safety requirements. My intent with this legislation is not to penalize certain states or to create "winners" or "losers" in the process of distributing federal highway funds, but to find the best solution that will eliminate these preventable tragedies.
At this time, it is unclear what direction the next highway authorization bill will take, what the federal role will be in maintaining the national transportation infrastructure, and what current ISTEA programs will be renewed. I am supporting a reauthorization proposal to provide a more streamlined, flexible highway program that returns resources and authority back to the states. My intent with this legislation during this reauthorization process is not to protect a particular highway program or specific federal set aside requirement of the expiring ISTEA law, but rather to continue emphasizing an issue of great importance to my state of Indiana and to other states experiencing grade crossing safety problems. I will advocate grade crossing safety as a priority within the context of other key funding and flexibility issues that are vital to the continued safety and mobility of Hoosiers traveling on Indiana roadways. I am hopeful this legislation will reinforce the importance of highway rail grade crossing safety as the Congress moves forward with the national discussion of U.S. transportation policy for the 21st Century.
As the ISTEA reauthorization process continues in the coming weeks and months, I look forward to working with the Committee to help find an appropriate federal role that encourages states to continue their grade crossing safety efforts.
Continued emphasis on finding new and better ways to target existing resources to enhance safety at highway rail grade crossings will contribute to the overall effort in Congress and in the States to prevent accidents, save lives and sustain a balanced and effective transportation network for the nation.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify before the Committee today.