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Blanco Wants Railroad Industry to Pay More for Louisiana's Railroad

Mar 25, 2005 | AP

At least 500 of Louisiana's railway crossings should be closed to vehicle traffic to help reduce the number of accidents involving vehicles and trains, the state's transportation chief said Thursday.

Ten people have died this year at railroad crossings in Louisiana on pace to tie a state record set in the 1960s and the state is routinely among the top five states in the nation in such wrecks, according to Operation Lifesaver, a group that tracks the accidents nationwide.

In 2003, Louisiana had 128 train crossing wrecks and led all states with 3.68 accidents per 100 crossings, the group said.

Louisiana has 3,017 points where roadways cross rail lines on public property and 500 should be closed, said Johnny Bradbury, head of the state Department of Transportation and Development.

Parish and city governments have the power to close them but are often reluctant because residents like the convenience. James Champagne, head of the state Highway Safety Commission, said local leaders need to see past such arguments and close up to 1,500 of the crossings statewide to prevent more deaths.

"We need to get past that attitude about convenience," Champagne said.

Champagne, Bradbury and Gov. Kathleen Blanco spoke at a meeting of government and industry officials called to find ways to reduce the number of the accidents.

Bradbury said he was considering seeking legislation that would give the state the power to close crossings that are on parish or city property.

Blanco said she wanted the rail industry to double the amount it pays to put safety equipment at the crossings. Rail companies now pays 5 percent of the cost to put up and upgrade the flashing lights, gates and other apparatus that inform motorists that a train is approaching a crossing. Federal and state government money pays the rest.

Blanco said she wanted the industry to up its contribution to 10 percent, the same as it pays in Mississippi.

"It seems we have an epidemic" of railway deaths, Blanco said, adding that her own grandfather was killed in such an accident in Iberia Parish.

It costs about $150,000 on average to equip a crossing with the safety materials, said Carmack M. Blackmon, a lawyer and lobbyist for the railway industry. The amount of government money available means about 35 of Louisiana's crossings can be equipped per year, he said.

Blackmon said the industry would probably agree to the 10 percent figure.

However, crossings equipped with the safety measures are not much safer than those without them, according to transportation department statistics.

About 43 percent of vehicle accidents with trains happen at crossings with the equipment, because people ignore them or drive around them, agency spokesman Mark Lambert said.

Champagne said the crossings should be equipped anyway, because the equipment is effective in other states. Louisiana's drivers will eventually learn to obey them, he said.

And Federal Railroad Administration research has found that crossings with such equipment are 75 percent less likely to have accidents than those without them.

The reason so many accidents happen at safety-equipped crossings is that those spots are more dangerous or have more traffic, said Ronald E. Ries, a staff director with the agency.

Champagne said the most people killed in one year in Louisiana railway collisions was about 30, in the 1960s.

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