The cost of updating railroad crossings

Governor Dayton has identified over 75 dangerous crossings that he believes need to have changes made, including the one in St. Paul Park where a semi recently collided with an oil train.

But who is responsible for deciding what kinds of safety signals are at crossings? And who pays for upgrades? The answer to both the questions: taxpayers.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation uses a variety of factors — train traffic, vehicle traffic, crash history, visibility — to decide what kinds of signals are required at a particular crossing.

MnDOT's current budget to enhance crossings is around $14 million — some from the state legislature and some from the federal government. However, adding cross arms to a crossing costs $300,000, so the state's current dollars cannot go far. And the state no longer solely adds signal lights to crossings, requiring any addition to include cross arms.

Once a signal is installed, the railroad does pay to maintain it.

The other options for enhancing the safety of a crossing include closing it, or the very costly option of building a bride or tunnel. Even closing a crossing can be expensive if it requires additional infrastructure to support re-routed traffic.

For example, take the crossing in St. Paul Park where the collision occurred. It has all the lights and sounds one associates with a railroad crossing, but not the cross arms. The current plan is to close the crossing, but costs could total over a $1 million.

Right now, the state of Minnesota has 4,100 crossings, and 1,500 of those have some kind of signal; the rest simply have signs alerting motorists of the tracks.

Railroads are federally regulated, and own the land their tracks run on, for which they pay property taxes. Railroads also invest hundreds of millions of dollars in safety and capacity improvements in Minnesota.

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