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INF27 Shift Responsibility for Railroad Safety at Roadway Crossings to Caltrans

Summary

The California Public Utilities Commission is statutorily responsible for prioritizing and approving projects that involve at-grade and separated-grade rail crossings of state and local roadways. The California Department of Transportation reviews and administers the project contracts. Overlapping responsibilities between Public Utilities Commission and Caltrans complicate the process for local agencies.

Background

The Public Utilities Commission's (PUC) Highway-Rail Crossing Safety Branch oversees the safety of all public and private highway-rail crossings. PUC authorizes construction of new atgrade highway-rail crossings (where roads and tracks intersect at the same level) and construction of grade separations (underpasses or overheads where train tracks are above or below the roadway). PUC staff reviews proposals for crossings, investigates deficiencies of warning devices or other safety features at existing at-grade crossings and recommends engineering improvements to prevent accidents. Fifty railroad corporations operate within California, and there are about 11,000 public grade crossings located within 52 counties and 400 cities. [1]

Two programs fund at-grade crossings and grade separations. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) provides over $10 million annually for at-grade crossing safety improvements. The state provides $15 million from the State Highway Account (SHA) annually to fund grade separation projects. Before these funds are allocated, local agency projects must be reviewed and ranked by PUC and reviewed and authorized by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Federal funding for at-grade rail crossings (Section 130 program)

Under Title 23, United States Code, Section 130, each state is required to maintain a survey of all highways to identify those railroad crossings that may require separation, relocation, or protection devices, and establish and implement a schedule of projects for this purpose. The FHWA is responsible for this program, but has delegated implementation responsibility to the states.

State law requires PUC to approve all new at-grade crossings and modifications to existing crossings, including rail crossings on state and local roadways. PUC staff identifies about 100 crossings annually for review based on their hazard potential, using PUC's database to identify crossings with multiple accidents, as well as input from local agencies and railroads. After a diagnostic review, each crossing receives a priority ranking based on several factors, including the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) Accident Prediction Formula. PUC staff provides the final priority list of 20 to 30 crossings to Caltrans. [2]

Caltrans' Rail Crossing Safety & Track Branch reviews the list of eligible projects. Caltrans authorizes the local agencies to begin project development and obtain required funding. If all requirements are met, Caltrans enters into contracts with the railroads and local agencies to improve the crossings. [3]

State funding for separated-grade rail crossings (Section 190 program)

Under the California Streets and Highways Code Section 190, the grade separation program is funded by $15 million annually from the State Highway Account. Every other year, the PUC issues an Order Instituting Investigation of potential grade separation projects. About 50-60 applications are filed by local agencies over the two-year period. According to PUC, the process has been streamlined so that if no problems or conflicts concerning potential impacts at the proposed sites are identified, the applications are reviewed and then approved. If conflicts are identified, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) is assigned and public hearings are held. According to PUC staff, this process is required for about 5 percent of the applications filed. The ALJ issues a decision and PUC adopts a final priority list that is then forwarded to Caltrans for review and processing. After review, Caltrans allocates the funds and administers the contracts. [4]

PUC's concerns are that the reviews should focus on safety considerations, safety considerations should drive the prioritization of the projects, and rail crossings at state and local roadways should be reviewed and approved by the same entity. PUC also indicated that the standards used at all rail crossings should be uniform. [5]

According to Caltrans staff, most agencies are not able to meet all of the statutory and regulatory requirements to receive an allocation of funds. The requirements are more complicated than the typical process for local project development and may preclude critical projects from being developed. This process could be streamlined by programming these funds in the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) and the State Highway Operation and Protection Program (SHOPP), without requiring local agencies to meet the additional requirements for the rail crossing program. [6]

According to representatives of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), in most states the department of transportation assumes responsibility for the rail crossing program as well as the rail safety program. Apparently, only a few states (California, Ohio, and Illinois) require that a regulatory agency review and prioritize rail crossing improvement projects. According to the FRA, public utilities do not need to prioritize such projects. For example, the transportation departments in North Carolina and New Hampshire use formulas for calculating the priority based on roadway and train traffic, vehicle speeds and accident history. [7]

The diagnostic survey, review of the applications and prioritization of the eligible projects under the Section 130 and 190 programs involve technical responsibilities that could be carried out by Caltrans technical staff, as they are by most other states. These responsibilities are less of a regulatory issue than a technical, engineering-based function, and should be transferred to Caltrans.

Caltrans, through STIP and SHOPP programs, identifies and prioritizes transportation improvement projects annually. Although PUC prioritizes the rail crossing projects, Caltrans is required to integrate the PUC priority lists into STIP and SHOPP programs before authorization and funding can be provided. The involvement of two agencies can result in duplication of effort and can add uncertainty or confusion for local agencies as well as extra time to complete the project. Caltrans staff has indicated that more than 50 percent of the projects placed on the current priority list were rejected for various reasons, including the inability to construct the project as recommended, as well as uncertainty on the part of the local agency and railroad as to final PUC recommendations. [8]

Little Hoover Commission and others weigh in

In 1996, the Little Hoover Commission (LHC) recommended in a report to the Governor that the Governor and the Legislature transfer PUC's rail planning and safety functions to the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency. In its discussion on rail safety, LHC indicated that multi-purpose regulation of the railroads is no longer a critical function of the PUC. It stated that the dual-agency coordination, review and prioritization of projects can slow the process. [9] In its report, LHC refers to a 1996 U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) report entitled "Accidents That Shouldn't Happen," that identified a need to coordinate warning signal inspections, track and highway maintenance, and a need for better coordination in setting standards and designing highway-rail crossings. The U.S. DOT report states that railroad warning signals that "meet the standards" for rail inspectors might not adequately consider the demands of highway traffic, and traffic signals that seem adequate to highway engineers might pose problems for rail operation. [10]

According to a representative of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, the rail crossing safety project process has been a source of significant problems over the past few years. Application approvals for new crossings have been taking six to eight months for uncontested matters and up to two years on crossings that are contested. The agency is concerned that reviewers do not always take into account the overall benefits of the project. [11]

Recommendations

  1. The Governor should work with the Legislature to shift (Section 130 program) responsibilities from the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to the California Department of Transportation, or its successor.
  2. These duties are to identify crossings needing improvements, and to review, approve, and prioritize the project applications for at-grade roadway-rail crossings. The allocated sum of $10 million per year in the State Highway Account for this purpose would remain unchanged.

  3. The Governor should work with the Legislature to eliminate PUC's responsibilities for review, approval and prioritization of project applications for grade separation rail crossing projects (Section 190 program), and to amend the Streets and Highways Code to stipulate that such projects are to be implemented as a competitive process within the State Transportation Improvement Plan and the State Highway Operation and Protection Program.
  4. The allocated sum of $15 million per year in the State Highway Account dedicated for this purpose would remain unchanged.

Fiscal Impact

According to PUC's description of the Rail Crossings Engineering Section, 13 staff are responsible for the functions referred to in this proposal; eight are located in Los Angeles, two are located in San Francisco, and three are located in Sacramento. [12] In transferring the functions for the Section 130 and Section 190 programs from the PUC to Caltrans, 10 personnel years (PYs) will be transferred to Sacramento. Initially, there will be no net change in PYs.

During Fiscal Year 2005-2006, the relocation expenses for these employees are estimated to be a one-time cost of $250,000. In addition, there will be $53,000 in costs associated with moving the office operations to Sacramento.

 

Special Fund - (dollars in thousands)

Fiscal Year Savings Costs Net Savings (Costs) Change in PYs
2004-05 $0 $0 $0 0
2005-06 $0 $303 ($303) 0
2006-07 $0 $0 $0 0
2007-08 $0 $0 $0 0
2008-09 $0 $0 $0 0

Note: The dollars and PYs for each year in the above chart reflect the total change for that year from 2003-04 expenditures, revenues and PYs.

Endnotes

[1] California Public Utilities Commission, "Rail Safety," http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/static/industry/transportation (last visited April 24, 2004).
[2] Interview with Richard Clark, director, Rail Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco, California (May 14, 2004); and interview with George Elsmore, program manager, Railroad Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission, San Francisco, California (May 17, 2004).
[3] Interview with Steve Cates, chief, Rail Crossing Safety and Track Branch, California Department of Transportation, Sacramento, California (April 22, 2004 and May 15, 2004).
[4] Interview with the Richard Clark and George Elsmore.
[5] Interview with the Richard Clark and George Elsmore.
[6] Interview with Steve Cates.
[7] Interview with Mike Calhoun, transportation safety program specialist, Federal Railroad Administration, Washington, D.C. (April 28, 2004, May 17, 2004 and May 18, 2004); and interview with Brian Gilleran, grading crossing engineer, Federal Railroad Administration, Washington, D.C. (June 7, 2004).
[8] Interview with Steve Cates.
[9] Little Hoover Commission, "The State's Role in Competitive Utility Markets, Rail Safety Section" (Sacramento, California, December 1996), http://www.lhc.ca.gov/lhcdir/139/trans2.html (last visited June 7, 2004).
[10] U.S. Department of Transportation, "Accidents That Shouldn't Happen: A Report of the Grade Crossing Safety Task Force to Secretary Federico Pena" (March 1, 1996), p. 9.
[11] Interview with William R. Schulte, Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, Los Angeles, California (June 4, 2004).
[12] California Public Utilities Commission, "Rail Crossings Engineering," http://www.cpuc.ca.gov/static/industry/transportation/crossings/index.htm (last visited June 4, 2004).