Michigan lawmakers lay tracks on plans to clear back-ups at train crossings
- Senators last week approved plans for a grant program to avoid traffic backups at railroad crossings
- Supporters say rail upgrades would ease traffic pressure, prevent delays for emergency responders at stopped trains
- Some lawmakers want to further regulate the industry, which railroad companies are opposed to
Been stuck in a traffic stand still at your local railroad crossing for what feels like hours? You’re not alone — and Michigan lawmakers are laying the tracks for a plan to uncork the biggest pressure points.
There are about 4,800 public railroad crossings in Michigan. Many of those lead to few issues with occasional exceptions when trains passing by disrupt local traffic to a meaningful degree.
But in areas with heavy rail traffic — particularly Southeast Michigan, home to the bulk of the state’s railroad freight operations — crossing signals coming down often means lengthy delays with few options to go around as trains stop on the track or move slowly through a municipality’s main artery. In Huron Township, officials placed cameras at the busiest train crossing so the public and first responders alike could prepare for delays.
It’s more than a mere annoyance, said Sen. Darrin Camilleri, a Downriver Democrat who has long advocated for a fix, noting that buses on the way to school, police trying to respond to a reported incident and emergency medics rushing to hospitals with sick patients are all frequently stymied by stopped trains.
“These blocked crossings have caused so much turmoil in my region because of the traffic delays and the delayed emergency responses that they cause,” said Camilleri, D-Trenton.
A proposal unanimously approved in the Democratic-majority Senate last week that’s now poised for House consideration aims to get trains off the road entirely in the most clogged corridors.
Known as grade separation, the process involves building a bridge or underpass for freight trains at a busy intersection so the track no longer intersects with traffic. Under plans pending in the Legislature, a grant program run by the Michigan Department of Transportation would field requests from local governments for funding such projects, which typically cost millions to complete.
To be eligible, local governments would have to apply with a description of the proposed project and offer a minimum 10 percent match of local, private or federal funds.
Separately, both the House and Senate budget proposals include funding for high-priority rail grade separation projects. The Senate plan includes $50 million for a railroad underpass or overpass near Van Horn and M-85 in Trenton, Camilleri’s district, where two people died in 2019 when their car hit a moving train.
Jon Cool, president of the Michigan Railroads Association representing the state’s freight rail industry, said eight to 10 strategically placed projects “would really make a significant impact on congested rail crossing relief in our state.”
Some public officials believe tougher rail regulation at the state level is another solution for clearing up crossings, although that prospect is more controversial.
Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, chairs the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. She’s sponsoring legislation that would limit train lengths and require two-person crews on freight trains, ideas that have recently been proposed in other state legislatures like Nevada, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Geiss’ proposal would limit freight or work trains operating in Michigan from being longer than 7,500 feet and fine railroads found in violation up to $5,000. Shorter trains would result in fewer blocked crossings at a time if a train is stopped on the tracks, meaning drivers could more easily find an alternative route to their destination, she said.
The crew size legislation tracks with a proposed rule by the Federal Railroad Administration to require a minimum of two people when operating freight trains. As some railroads mull one-person crews, proponents argue that a bigger crew can better respond to emergency situations.
Those bills are currently being debated at the committee level.
The Michigan Railroads Association is opposed to both bills on grounds that railroads are federally regulated and should remain so. Requiring railroad operators to switch to a shorter train or add additional crew members at the border would interfere with interstate commerce and cause upheaval in the industry, Cool, the association’s president, said.
“There's zero data to suggest that limiting a train to a certain distance would add safety,” Cool said. “There’s zero data that says, ‘If you run a train with one person in the locomotive and one out in the vehicle ahead, that is less safe than one that has two or three people in it.’”
Geiss countered that if lawmakers wait on Congress to do something about an issue that’s already impacting Michigan residents, “we’ll be holding our breath for a really long time.”
A Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio spilled toxic waste and spurred national outcry, prompting renewed interest in train policy. With train safety in the spotlight, Geiss said now is the time to consider ways to fix issues.
“There is a need. There’s been a need,” Geiss said. “Right now, more people and more states are looking at how to tackle this issue of how much the trains are impacting the communities that they are going through.”
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