Short lines need CRISI to avoid a crisis

Written byChuck Baker, President, ASLRRA

A $ 3.47 million CRISI grant made it possible to replace the William J. “Bill” Duggan Bridge with the Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS). The new bridge was opened to freight rail traffic on June 30, 2020.

PERSPECTIVE ASLRRA, RAILWAY AGE, AOT 2021: The New Jersey School of Architecture offers a master’s degree in infrastructure planning. To prepare for his infrastructure course, Professor Alex Marshall used Google’s Ngram Viewer, which can search millions of books and publications to determine when a word was first used. He found that the word “infrastructure” first appeared in French publications in the 1880s in conjunction with railway engineering.

Today, “infrastructure” has become the rhetorical justification for all kinds of federal spending programs. Many of these programs are certainly meritorious and translate into economic and societal benefits. But, out of respect for the etymology of infrastructure, it is worth noting the state of play with regard to federal rail infrastructure subsidy programs.

From the point of view of branch lines, the most important of these is the Consolidated Program for the Improvement of Railway Infrastructure and Safety (CRISI). CRISI is the only federal railway grant funding program where short lines are directly eligible to apply. This eliminates the inevitable delays and bureaucracy associated with channeling funds through different levels of state and local government.

Since CRISI grants were first approved in 2017, 84 short lines have received more than $ 520 million in federal investments. These funds were used to rehabilitate tracks, repair or replace aging bridges, improve level crossings and remove bottlenecks.

For the short lines required to meet the federal government’s TPC mandate, CRISI grants made a critical contribution to costs that were otherwise beyond the reach of these small businesses.

While Congress still has many hurdles to overcome before enacting infrastructure legislation and significant substantive and process disagreements remain, what has been argued so far about funding CRISI is quite encouraging. The House Infrastructure Bill authorizes CRISI funding of $ 1.4 billion per year over five years for a total of $ 7 billion. The version adopted by the Senate Trade Committee authorizes $ 1 billion over five years for a total of $ 5 billion. And the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF) envisions CRISI funding of at least $ 5 billion from the “baseline”. Legislative text for the FIF is still pending, and the Appropriations Committees have the final say on how much of the “regular” surface transport authorization numbers will be funded, but all of these numbers are several times greater than the current CRISI appropriation for fiscal year 2021. $ 375 million. This gives an indication of the strong support of Congress for the expansion of this successful program. And in the more immediate future, on July 12, the House Appropriations Subcommittee responsible for CRISI’s funding levels approved $ 500 million for fiscal year 2022, a 33% increase over the previous year. last year.

In the authorization bills, while the short lines are excited about the funding levels, we are concerned about the provision approved by the House, which adds a new 25% reserve for “big projects” for the projects. over $ 100 million. This will divert a disproportionate amount from branch line projects, as well as the provision adding commuter train eligibility. No such qualification or qualification is included in the Senate bill, and we hope these policies will prevail.

The value of CRISI funding for short lines is fourfold:

First, it mobilizes substantial private funding that would otherwise be insufficient to support the project. Short-line successful applicants typically match between 30-50% of the federal grant with their own funds. Rail projects are very expensive, which is why combining the CRISI grant with the rail share is what makes the project feasible.

Second, CRISI projects build infrastructure assets that will last for decades. Likewise, the economic and security benefits will also continue during this long period.

Third, the most expensive and often financially out of reach rail projects (replacing bridges and replacing aging lightweight joint rails with new, heavier welded rails) have the greatest impact on improving rail safety. The CRISI program makes these projects possible.

Fourth, the main beneficiaries of these projects are the customers of the railways. There are some 600 short lines across the country, but they serve over 10,000 shippers who need a short line to stay connected to the Class I network. These shippers benefit from a more competitive, flexible and safer service when their local railroad improves its infrastructure.

Consider this example of a $ 3.47 million CRISI grant that made it possible to replace the William J. “Bill” Duggan Bridge with the Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS). This 121-year-old bridge serves Elite Octane in Atlantic, Iowa. Elite Octane CEO Nick Bowdish calls it critical infrastructure for his business: “We ship 8,000 wagons of dried distillers’ grains each year, a highly nutritious livestock feed, the majority of which passes through this bridge. If this bridge were to disappear, it would have a multi-million dollar impact on the efficiency and cost competitiveness of our business. The IAIS has produced a video summary of the project and the benefits for the shipper which you can see above. This is an example that can be repeated by virtually all shippers whose short line is a beneficiary of the CRISI program.

Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA

The William J. “Bill” Duggan Bridge was built in 1900, just a few years after the word “infrastructure” was first used. The new bridge is expected to last another 100 years. This is a very real infrastructure with excellent value for money. Programs like CRISI will give the branch line industry the opportunity to replicate this kind of success on its 50,000 mile network for the benefit of thousands of shippers.

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