- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The Federal Railroad Administration has awarded nearly $10 million in grants to upgrade or close dozens of railroad crossings in eight states, including a $1.1 million grant to Louisiana.

FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg visited Baton Rouge on Wednesday to announce the grants, which are funded by the federal Safe Transportation of Energy Products by Rail Program.

Louisiana’s grant will pay for closing six crossings and upgrading nine others with gates and lights along a 6-mile stretch of Baton Rouge rail owned by Kansas City Southern Railway Company. The FRA says four people have been injured in 11 accidents at these 15 crossings since 2000. An average of eight trains per day travel along the route.

The other states receiving grant money are Arkansas, California, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin. The grants target routes where trains carry crude oil and ethanol.

Feinberg said there was an “uptick” in deaths and injuries at rail crossings in 2014 after years of steadily declining numbers.

“We know that those numbers went way, way down during the recession, probably because there were fewer people on the roads and fewer trains traveling,” she said. “We’re not sure yet why those numbers have ticked up.”

But accidents at rail crossings are a “really old challenge,” Feinberg added.

“It’s one that I think we’ve thrown a lot at over the years, over the decades, and we need to be thinking about it in new ways,” she said, noting that the FRA is working with technology companies to integrate federal rail data with mapping applications.

In 2014, 267 people died in collisions between trains and vehicles at U.S. railroad crossings. Only four states had more deaths at crossings in 2014 than Louisiana, which had 13.

Many of the crossings due for upgrades and closings in Baton Rouge are near a magnet school for middle schoolers. Sean Joffrion, the school’s principal, said many of his students have to cross the tracks at least twice every day.

“Knowing that the safety of the railroad crossings will be increased puts me as well as parents more at ease,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana said the grants are a “step in the right direction.”

“There’s a whole lot more that needs to be done in this region to further improve the interface between these various modes of transportation,” he said.

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