Seven Reasons to Love CRISI Grants

Written by Chuck Baker, President, ASLRRA
ASLRRA President Chuck Baker (ASLRRA Photograph)

ASLRRA President Chuck Baker (ASLRRA Photograph)

ASLRRA PERSPECTIVE, RAILWAY AGE JUNE 2024 ISSUE: If I were writing an ode to the CRISI (Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements) Grant Program, I couldn’t do better than by plagiarizing the title of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous poem, “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Ways.”

Known formally as Sonnet 43, this 14-line poem describes seven ways Browning loved her husband. As luck would have it, there are also seven important ways that are cause for loving CRISI, and while my rendition is surely not as elegant as Browning’s, I hope you find it equally compelling.

Safety: Every dollar invested in improving rail infrastructure is a dollar invested in rail safety. Better tie conditions, newer rail and rehabilitated bridges reduce derailments, making rail transportation safer for short line employees and for the communities they serve. These are expensive projects, many of which could not otherwise be afforded by short lines. The CRISI program’s matching structure makes the short line’s investment economically feasible and leverages private investment that would otherwise be unavailable. 

Jobs: Short line railroads are small businesses that hire outside contractors for most capital investment projects, making CRISI an engine for job creation, which is particularly impactful in the rural and small-town areas we serve.

Environment: The environmental advantages of moving freight by rail are well documented. Upgrading track and bridges to handle the industry-standard 286,000-pound cars, building new sidings and yards to meet increasing customer demand, and reducing bottlenecks that create inefficiencies all contribute to diverting truck loads to railcar loads. That diversion reduces harmful emissions due to rail’s inherent fuel efficiency advantages. A 2021 amendment to the CRISI statute added a new eligibility for upgrading locomotives to generate further emission reductions, and more and more short lines are seeking funding for that purpose. For example, in the current round of CRISI applications submitted at the end of May, the California Air Resources Board (CARB), in partnership with three California short lines, is submitting an application to replace a group of diesel locomotives with Zero-Emission locomotives and install battery chargers. In addition to the immediate reduction in diesel consumption and associated emissions, the project could accelerate the adoption of zero-emission technology over time by demonstrating its success in a pilot program.

Improving Service to Customers: Short line shippers are the ultimate beneficiaries of improved railroad service. There are thousands of those shippers, the majority of which operate their businesses in rural and small-town America, where efficient and reliable transportation is the life blood of their business. A short line railroad is often their only connection to the national railroad system, and CRISI grants are making those short lines a more efficient and competitive part of their transportation supply chain.

Economic Development: Funding economic development in rural areas is a challenge. Existing businesses are small and transportation infrastructure is often inadequate. Short lines are using CRISI grants to expand capacity, improve rail connections to existing industries and develop industrial parks that can attract additional businesses to the area. The Lancaster & Chester Railroad’s 2021 CRISI rehabilitation project elicited what is an oft-repeated refrain from an economic development official in their area: “During the past 11 years, Chester County has attracted more than $3 billion in new industrial development creating almost 4,000 new jobs. This opportunity is a direct result of having the L&C railroad as our partner.”

Tackling the Bridge Backlog: Short lines operate over some of the oldest railroad bridges in the country, some built more than 100 years ago. Replacing or repairing a bridge, be it a highway or railroad bridge, is an expensive proposition. The federal and state governments spend huge sums of public money on highway bridges. Short line railroads have never had access to that kind of public money. Today, CRISI is making bridge repair economically feasible for some short lines.

Short Line Eligibility: CRISI is the only major infrastructure grant program where short lines are eligible applicants. This makes application preparation and project execution much more efficient, and increases a short line’s ability to compete on a more level playing field with state and local governments and large transportation agencies. The results are clear. In the most recent round of CRISI awards, short lines garnered 47 of the 70 projects awarded totaling $720 million, about half of the $1.44 billion available. 

When first enacted in 2017, CRISI was funded through the annual appropriations process, receiving about $200 million-$300 million annually in its first few years of existence. In 2021, Congress dramatically expanded funding under the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act (IIJA), providing advance appropriations of $1 billion per year for five years and authorizing up to an additional $1 billion per year. 

The President’s FY 2025 budget requests only $250 million toward that $1 billion cap. The short line challenge today is to convince Congress to appropriate the full authorized $1 billion for FY 2025. To that end, we have worked hard on securing Congressional signatures on separate House and Senate letters that urge their respective Appropriations Committees to do just that. This has been a bi-partisan effort led by Senators Casey (D-Pa.) and Cramer (R-N.Dak.) in the Senate and Representatives Burchett (R-Tenn.) and Garcia (D-Tex.) in the House. The letters were delivered in May with a record number of signatures—31 in the Senate, 140 in the House. Signed by both Republicans and Democrats, it is a strong and rare bi-partisan show of support, and we hope to build on that support in the coming months.

Elizabeth Barret Browning’s Sonnet 43 was written about her husband, Robert Browning. Short lines are not married to CRISI, but we love it, nonetheless.   

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