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‘If we can save one life’: Federal bill named for Longmeadow DPW worker Warren Cowles would boost funding for railroad crossing safety

MassLive.com logo MassLive.com 2 days ago By Greg Saulmon, masslive.com
a large air plane on a run way: An Amtrak train passes through the crossing at Birnie Road and Tina Lane in Longmeadow Nov. 15, 2019. © Greg Saulmon | gsaulmon@repub.com/Greg Saulmon / The Republican/masslive.com/TNS An Amtrak train passes through the crossing at Birnie Road and Tina Lane in Longmeadow Nov. 15, 2019.

SPRINGFIELD — Money can’t bring her brother back.

But maybe, Cindy J. Cowles says, a bill introduced this week by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey designating hundreds of millions of dollars for safety improvements at railroad crossings will save other lives.

If it passes as part of the next surface transportation package in Congress, the Warren Cowles Grade Crossing Safety Act would add $250 million to the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program in the next fiscal year alone.

Markey said the bill was inspired by his work helping to broker the plans and funding for warning lights, gates and bells at the Longmeadow crossing where Warren P. Cowles, a town worker plowing snow in a blinding storm, died in a collision with an Amtrak train on March 14, 2017. Cowles was the fifth person killed in seven collisions at the crossing at Birnie Road and Tina Lane since 1975.

The work to install safety equipment at the crossing wrapped up in late 2019.

“This experience highlighted an unfortunately widespread problem, and how preventable these tragedies are,” Markey told The Republican. “That’s why I am committed to continuing to honor Warren’s memory by preventing unnecessary deaths everywhere we can with this legislation.”

Cindy Cowles, of Springfield, said Markey’s office sought her permission to use her brother’s name on the bill. There was a conference call with staffers in Boston and Washington, and she gave her blessing.

“My first thought was, if using the name can help save others, I can’t say no,” she said.

When an editor told her the amount of the proposed funding, which she heard for the first time during an interview, her one-word response — “wow” — lasted several beats.

It still stings to think about the lives lost over the decades before the crash as local, state, federal and railroad officials failed to compromise on whether upgrades at the crossing were needed — and if they were, who would pay for them.

When Cowles first heard about the bill, she wasn’t without reservations.

“The mixed feelings were, why did it have to take my brother’s death to get this taken care of? And then the other side of it is, I can’t bring him back — it is what it is,” she said. “So, if it can help others anywhere else in this country then it’s still a good thing.”

a group of people posing for the camera: Cindy J. Cowles of Springfield and U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, center, cut a ribbon with other state and local officials and members of the Cowles family in November 2019, marking the completion of safety upgrades at the crossing. © Greg Saulmon | gsaulmon@repub.com/Greg Saulmon / The Republican file/masslive.com/TNS Cindy J. Cowles of Springfield and U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey, center, cut a ribbon with other state and local officials and members of the Cowles family in November 2019, marking the completion of safety upgrades at the crossing.

Longmeadow officials began discussing the need for safety improvements at the crossing as early as 1981, town records show. Warren Cowles’ death reignited the effort.

Federal funding for 90% of the $775,800 project was approved in September 2017. The money came from MassDOT’s share of the federal Railway-Highway Crossings Program — also known as Section 130 — which sends money for safety improvements at railroad crossings to state departments of transportation. Before any work could begin, though, Amtrak needed to approve a design and construction plan and agree to pay the remaining 10%.

In October 2017, Markey — along with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal — sent a letter to Amtrak President and co-CEO Richard H. Anderson calling for action at the crossing. State Sen. Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, has said Markey helped “unstick” the process by discussing the crossing with an Amtrak administrator during an oversight hearing.

Ed Markey wearing a suit and tie: Cindy J. Cowles of Springfield talks with U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey in November 2019 at the Longmeadow railroad crossing where her brother, a foreman for the town\u2019s Department of Public Works, died in a March 2017 collision with an Amtrak train. © Greg Saulmon | gsaulmon@repub.com/Greg Saulmon / The Republican file/masslive.com/TNS Cindy J. Cowles of Springfield talks with U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey in November 2019 at the Longmeadow railroad crossing where her brother, a foreman for the town\u2019s Department of Public Works, died in a March 2017 collision with an Amtrak train.

In addition to his work on a funding agreement, the senator — who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation — pressured Amtrak at Congressional hearings in 2018 and 2019 to expedite the project, his office said.

“The residents of Longmeadow rightfully demanded action to prevent future harm, and I was proud to help broker the plans and funding for long overdue safety improvements at this particular site,” Markey said.

Markey’s office said the annual $250 million listed in the bill, which potentially would increase in fiscal 2022 and beyond based on the Consumer Price Index, came from recommendations by the American Public Transportation Association.

At a February hearing on railroad safety, association president and CEO Paul Skoutelas urged Congress to approve a total of $1.5 billion over six years for crossing safety projects through the Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements Program. Skoutelas said that while his organization is “grateful” for funding through the Section 130 program, “more needs to be done.”

While both federal programs provide money for crossing safety improvements, Markey’s office said the new bill targets the Consolidated Rail program because a wider group of stakeholders — including rail carriers such as Amtrak as well as counties, cities, towns and other entities — is eligible for funding. The program creates an opportunity for federal assistance even if a crossing isn’t state-owned.

In Longmeadow, Amtrak owned the tracks at the crossing where Warren Cowles died. If MassDOT hadn’t agreed to pay a significant share through Section 130 funding, the project would have stalled out unless the railroad agreed to pay the entire cost.

The Consolidated Rail program offered $312 million in fiscal 2020 for eligible projects — which, in addition to crossing safety improvements, include other capital projects, planning and workforce training. The money Markey is seeking to add would only be available for highway-rail grade crossing improvements.

The surface transportation reauthorization package is usually passed by Sept. 30, according to Markey’s office, but the timeline could shift this year due to the coronavirus crisis. The railroad crossing bill does not have an official bipartisan co-sponsor yet, but talks are underway with Republican members of the transportation committee and Chairman Roger F. Wicker, a Mississippi Republican.

Ben Heckscher, co-founder of the local rail advocacy group Trains In The Valley, said he applauds Markey’s efforts.

"Lives have been lost at the Birnie Road crossing in Longmeadow, that could have been saved, if only the unsafe conditions at this crossing had been corrected earlier,” he said. “Increasing federal funding on safety improvements at railroad crossings is a wise investment that yields immediate and long-term benefits over time in accidents prevented and lives saved.”

In the months and years after the crash, Cindy Cowles became an outspoken advocate for the safety improvements, regularly calling officials to check on the project’s progress.

“If we can save one life — then that’s one life that we saved,” she said of the legislation. “Just that alone would be worth it. If we can save even more lives, then that’s even better.”

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