Thanks to Infrastructure Funding, Long-Sought Rail Projects Move Forward
The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded $1.4 billion for railroad improvements, a huge expansion of a key funding program under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Funded projects will help make passenger and freight service more efficient.
A cause of some of the most persistent train delays in Northern Virginia could soon be eliminated, a 135-year-old rail bridge in rural Michigan could soon be replaced and years-in-the-planning passenger rail service on the Gulf Coast may soon begin again — all due in part to new funding included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Last month, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) announced the distribution of $1.4 billion in grants from the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) Program, which is focused on projects “that improve the safety, efficiency and reliability of intercity passenger and freight rail,” according to the FRA. The program was established in 2015, and, like many other transportation-related grant programs, was supercharged by the passage of the IIJA in 2021.
The $1.4 billion grant total for fiscal year 2022 is more than three times greater than the FY2021 total, and five times greater than FY19. Gradually, the program has become one of the country’s most significant sources of funding for railway infrastructure, with benefits for intercity passenger rail, state and local projects, and freight rail efficiency alike.
“This is, for us, a pretty important moment because it’s the first real IIJA money that has come out of the Federal Railroad Administration,” says Sean Jeans-Gail, vice president of government affairs and policy for the Rail Passengers Association, an advocacy group. “We are hoping that this is the starting gun for the IIJA more broadly.”
Eliminating Passenger-Freight Conflicts in Virginia
One of the biggest awards in this year’s announcement is a $100 million grant to the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority (VPRA) for the Franconia-Springfield Bypass. The project involves building a new rail bridge on a congested portion of railway just south of the Franconia-Springfield station in Northern Virginia, which is used by Virginia Railway Express commuter trains. The line currently carries between 50 and 70 trains per day. All of the passenger stations to the north of Franconia sit on the west side of the railroad right of way, says DJ Stadtler, executive director of the Virginia Passenger Rail Authority, but all of the stations to the south are on the east side of the right of way. That forces passenger trains to cross over the tracks, adding to frequent conflicts between freight and passenger trains. The new flyover crossing will allow trains to make the switch without disrupting other traffic.
It’s one of several projects that will allow VPRA and Amtrak to add new passenger service between the Northeast Corridor, the most heavily traveled rail corridor in the U.S., and the southeastern states. Other projects include adding new tracks on several miles of the 120-year-old Long Bridge over the Potomac River. The bridge is another site of regular freight-passenger conflicts and delays. Freight companies — in this case, CSX — own most of the tracks in the U.S. They are legally required to prioritize Amtrak passenger trains, but often don’t do so. The VPRA has invested in buying right of way from CSX and Norfolk Southern, with the vision of eventually having separate tracks for passenger and freight trains all the way from D.C. to Spotsylvania, one of the busiest sections of track in the state.
“In the past, when you wanted expanded passenger service, it was historically a big fight with the freight railroads,” Stadtler says. “Virginia said, ‘We don’t want to start an initiative that’s just going to get lawyers rich fighting each other.’”
That has meant working with the freight companies to acquire track and create upgrades with federal grants and other sources of funding. The freight companies, laser-focused on shipping efficiency and profitability, benefit from the work as well.
Most of the FY22 CRISI grants are small. By law, rural areas receive at least a quarter of the grants. Other large grants include more than $200 million for the California High-Speed Rail Authority, $108 million for the Massachusetts Inland Route project, and $60 million for a bridge replacement in New Jersey.
Program Designed Around Gulf Coast Project
One of the biggest grants will help start new passenger rail service between New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., which has been shut down since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The $178 million grant to Amtrak will help pay for upgrades on tracks owned by CSX and Norfolk Southern. The new service will involve two trains a day in each direction, and could start as soon as the first quarter of 2024, says John Robert Smith, chairman of the advocacy group Transportation for America and a long-time proponent for restoring Gulf Coast service.
In fact, Smith says, the CRISI program itself is a result of efforts to bring passenger rail back to the Gulf Coast. The program was authorized as part of the FAST Act under President Obama in 2015. It was a time when Congress had limited earmark spending that directs money to specific projects in different districts and was not creating any new programs. Rail advocates on the Gulf Coast were looking for ways to fund the needed improvements, and with help from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), consolidated a number of small rail funding programs into the CRISI program, Smith says.
Initially, CRISI favored applicants that put up a 50 percent local match for funds they received through the program. In addition to greatly expanding the size of the program, the IIJA changed the rules to require only a 20 percent local match. The program can help fund work that could expand the passenger rail network in the U.S., and build support among lawmakers for more funding, Smith says.
“What I am hoping is that successful projects built out through IIJA funding, with matching dollars that are non-federal, will show the value of passenger rail in surprising parts of the country, and that will begin to coalesce in a passenger rail caucus in both chambers [of Congress],” he says.
In the meantime, Smith, a former mayor of Meridian, Miss., says states that are receiving CRISI grants owe a debt to advocates and lawmakers in the Gulf states, whose persistence in finding ways to restore passenger service has ended up benefiting communities across the nation.
“Tell them I said, ‘You’re welcome,’” Smith says.
Note: This article has been updated to clarify which rail corridor in Northern Virginia is being improved.