Proposal to shift freight trains from Metairie to Hollygrove raises hackles

About 300 people packed into a basement auditorium of a South Carrollton Avenue school Thursday night to oppose a plan that could dramatically increase the number of freight cars that rumble through the nearby Hollygrove neighborhood every day.

The $750 million New Orleans Rail Gateway plan, they were assured, is only being studied, is subject to change, has no funding in place and is at least 15 years away from becoming reality, if it ever does.

That did little to dampen the sense of urgency in the room.

“This is not an acceptable option, period,” New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry said to nods and murmurs of agreement at the meeting, which included the study’s lead consultant, state transportation officials and members of the group Coalition United Against the Middle Belt.

The “middle belt” is one of two options under consideration in the plan, which seeks to alter the existing rail line to make the system more efficient for trains, reduce the time motorists spend idling at crossings, move switching operations out of City Park and decrease flooding in two areas where highways have to dip under the tracks.

A key part of the plan would move the freight route out of Old Metairie and add two freight tracks along the passenger rail track through Hollygrove.

Residents of the Orleans Parish neighborhood are as against the idea as their counterparts in Jefferson Parish are for it.

Indeed, Thursday’s meeting was in stark contrast to a similar one in October in Old Metairie.

Rumors swirled before the Metairie meeting that an announcement might be made that the tracks, which have blocked traffic on Metairie Road several times a day for decades, would soon be moved, leaving the railroad bed to be turned into a bike path.

But when state Department of Transportation and Development official Dean Goodell told the packed gymnasium at St. Francis Xavier High School that the project wasn’t funded and would take up to 15 years, residents began angrily filing out of the building.

In the months that followed, the project’s potential impact on Hollygrove has gained more attention, and the plan — once said to enjoy the harmonious support of both Orleans and Jefferson parishes — now appears to have significant opposition.

At Thursday’s meeting, Guidry read a statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu saying he does not support “a significant shift of freight train traffic from Old Metairie to Hollygrove or Mid-City.”

He added: “My understanding is that these are preliminary discussions, and decisions concerning any changes in rail traffic would require significantly more review and federal approval. However, on this issue, I am always going to err on the side that benefits New Orleans.”

The overall goal of the New Orleans Rail Gateway plan enjoys broad support.

Motorists spend an estimated 120 hours a day waiting at 25 railroad crossings in the metro area, with trucks idling for 12 hours a day, spewing fumes into the atmosphere.

There are bottlenecks in the existing system where the line narrows down to a single track, and a more efficient alternative would make the metro area economy more competitive, according to state officials. Intersections at Airline and at Interstate 10, where each road goes under the tracks, create flooding problems.

Moving the freight tracks would reduce the number of railroad crossings, which are irritating at best and dangerous at worst.

Overall, proponents say, the middle belt’s proposed path along Earhart Boulevard to the parish line and then parallel with Airline Drive through Hollygrove to I-10 runs through more industrial areas than the current route.

But Hollygrove residents wonder why they should be expected to accept something no one else wants.

Resident Beverly Wright told Goodell and consultant Chris Gesing that talk of “regional competitiveness” and “the greater good” doesn’t cut it as an explanation.

“I haven’t heard one example of what that is and how that’s going to help us,” she said. “Somebody always has to sacrifice for somebody’s greater good.”

“If the railroad has been working through Metairie, why does it have to come through New Orleans?” asked Pat Picket, suggesting it might be because “Metairie has the money, and Hollygrove is a poor district.”

A man who identified himself only as Michael said vibrations from the trains that pass through Hollygrove now have damaged homes — a complaint that echoes similar ones made by Old Metairie residents. “Now they’re trying to bring more railroad traffic through there? What are we going to do with all our homes that are falling apart, the foundations and everything?” he asked.

Asked why the railroad can’t bypass residential areas altogether, Goodell and Gesing said the plan is looking only at how existing rights-of-way can be used because it becomes too difficult to route trains through areas in which the state doesn’t own the land.

While the audience was not easily reassured, Goodell reiterated that the middle belt is simply being studied, that public input is going to be taken into account and that nothing is final. It’s quite possible, he said, that nothing will be done at all.

“We don’t know if it’s going to come here or not,” Goodell said. “That’s what this study is for, to determine the best route.”

Gesing noted the current environmental planning phase won’t end until the summer of 2015. “We’re going to have a lot more meetings,” he said.

Asked if there would be a vote on the middle belt plan, Goodell said that, practically speaking, any of the stakeholders in the process has the ability to prevent anything it doesn’t want implemented because any changes would require a consensus.

Guidry said that at some point, some aspect of the plan will come before elected officials in New Orleans.

“We will not agree to this,” she promised, adding she doesn’t think New Orleans will lose its competitive edge without the change.

“Someday we hope they can come up with something that can work,” Guidry said, “but this isn’t it.”