Florida wants to upgrade 4,000 rail crossings in the next two years.
The Florida Department of Transportation will make safety improvements to more than 4,000 rail crossings over the next two years, state Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said Thursday.
The $60 million project will include painting stripes on pavement and installing signs and crossing arms, Thibault said.
The announcement follows the November deaths of a grandmother and two young boys at an ungated railroad crossing in rural Palm Beach County. While Thibault didn’t specifically mention that incident in unveiling the new safety program, the tragedy brought attention to dangerous rail crossings throughout Florida.
The trio were on their way to a Cub Scouts camping event when they were killed by an Amtrak train. The crossing is one of four along the Beeline Highway in the northwestern part of the county with no gates to prevent cars from driving into the path of oncoming trains.
The crash claimed the lives of Valery Jo Rintamaki, 58, and her two grandsons, Tristan Prestano, 10, and Skyler Prestano, 8, of Wellington.
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Responding to a reporter’s query during a news conference in Pompano Beach, Thibault called their deaths “unfortunate.” He didn’t say whether that accident led to Thursday’s announcement, and Thibault said he was uncertain precisely how that crossing would be upgraded.
That rail crossing, at the entrance to the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area, is marked by no warning bells, no flashing lights, no retractable gates and no pavement markings. Motorists see a rise in the pavement where the road crosses the track, along with an X-shaped railroad crossing sign and a yield sign.
Thibault said the state tested safety upgrades — “dynamic envelope,” in FDOT jargon — from 2014 to 2017. At crossings where new features were added, the number of vehicles stopped on or precariously close to tracks fell by 15 percent.
The upgrades are set to be completed by March 2022.
As the poorly marked crossing that claimed the lives of the grandmother and Cub Scouts illustrates, FDOT has a less-than-precise grasp on the issue of dangerous crossings. Thibault said he was uncertain exactly how many crossings would be upgraded, but he estimated the number at 4,000 to 4,100.
“The loss of any life on our roadways is one too many,” Thibault said.
Thibault was appointed to his post in January by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
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Since last month’s fatal wreck, state Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, has been outspoken about the need for improved railroad crossings. He said he had heard few details about the upgrades from the state Department of Transportation.
“I’m happy something is being done,” Willhite said.
Thursday’s announcement follows Wednesday’s unveiling of an unrelated initiative by Brightline to reduce suicides along its tracks through the densely populated coastal parts of South Florida.
The fatal crash Nov. 23 took place at a crossing just north of Indiantown Road. Safety records show Amtrak trains have struck vehicles there four previous times since 2000.
Those incidents include a 2009 crash with a pickup truck that injured nine Amtrak passengers and a 2003 collision with a dump truck that injured the truck driver and an Amtrak passenger.
Another ungated crossing just south of Indiantown Road was the site of a deadly crash in 2007 between an Amtrak train and a Bobcat track loader. The collision threw the railroad worker into a pool of swampy water, killing him.
At an ungated crossing at Halpatiokee Road, south of the Caloosa community, an Amtrak train clipped a vehicle in 2014, killing one person.
County officials and CSX Transportation officials have said it is up to state transportation officials to upgrade security measures at the crossing.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.