The federal government spends billions of dollars on bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure to direct traffic over, under and around railroad tracks. But for many residents and local officials, that’s an imperfect way to ease congestion on roads that are often blocked by freight trains.

To take advantage of the federal money, communities must find a way to cover part of the cost of expensive upgrades. In addition, it may be difficult or impossible to build bridges and tunnels.

Some towns and cities have successfully worked with railroads to reschedule operations or move tracks away from busy roads. But many local officials complain that railroads are often unwilling to help, leaving communities with few options.

“Everybody loves trains and we appreciate the economic benefit of it, but we’re tired of being held hostage,” said Brad Rogers, a member of the Elkhart County Commission in Indiana.

A decade ago, when he was sheriff, Mr. Rogers sent deputies to issue tickets to Norfolk Southern crews whose trains were obstructing traffic. The tickets helped draw attention to blocked crossings, and the congestion eased for a time. But the railroad sued the state, and the Indiana Supreme Court struck down the law that authorized local officials to fine railroads for blocking crossings.

The Association of American Railroads, which represents the major freight railroads, said its members work with local officials to ease transfer congestion when they can, but that the problem is complex and the result of years of limited public funding for infrastructure improvements.

“When the railroads began to connect the country, people put down roots and built communities alongside them,” John Gray, senior vice president at the association, said in a statement. “Railroads allowed the roads to cross the tracks using grade crossings rather than grade separations, as was the norm in populated areas of most other developed regions of the world. The public entities, always eager to save a few bucks, readily agreed.”

Most states regulate blocked crossings, but courts have thrown out several of those laws, determining that only the federal government can enact and enforce such rules. Indiana and nearly 20 other states recently joined Ohio in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to determine that states can issue such regulations.

Congress provided about $3 billion in 2021 to help fund projects that would ease congestion at frequently congested railroad crossings. In June, the Biden administration awarded the first round of grants from that fund, approximately $570 millionto make improvements at more than 400 crossings.

Houston will receive $37 million to build four subways and remove seven crossings. Pelham, Ala., near Birmingham, will receive nearly $42 million build a bridge and eliminate two railroad crossings along a road that divides the city. Olathe, Kan., near Kansas City, will get about $18 million to build an overpass with a sidewalk that will allow children to get to school and connect bicyclists and walkers to a trail system.

“What’s exciting about this moment is for the first time there is specific, dedicated funding — and a lot of it — to address this,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview.

Even before Congress made this money available, some local governments found ways to reduce the impact of trains blocking crossings. In Utah, community groups are building a pedestrian bridge that will cross three Union Pacific rail lines and two local transit lines near a high school in Salt Lake City. Congestion there often blocks roads, forcing some residents to squeeze through or crawl under trains.

But some communities can’t come up with the matching funds for bridge and tunnel projects or pay for maintenance. In some areas, building overpasses or underpasses may not be practical.

So many communities opted for cheaper solutions.

Officials in West Springfield and Agawam, Massachusetts, sought federal funds to build a bridge over a railroad crossing along a road that connects the cities, but did not win a grant. So officials are left to rely on signs with flashing lights that warn people when a train is crossing the road.

Those lights helped but increased congestion on other roads. And emergency medics are still forced to drive farther to avoid blocked checkpoints.

“We can’t even estimate the damage it may have caused,” said Agawam Mayor Bill Sapelli. “If they went around rather than taking the shortest route and someone didn’t, and it was a matter of minutes, that makes a difference.”

Mr. Rogers, the Indiana commissioner, recently visited a city that uses a system developed by Trainfo, a Canadian company. The company uses acoustic sensors and software to identify approaching and stopped trains. That information can be sent to road signs, emergency dispatchers or social media.

“We wanted to resolve this with the train companies, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen,” Mr Rogers said. “So we try to think outside the box.”

Mark Walker contributed reporting.

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