Filed Under:  Local, News

Hollygrove train plan gains steam

3rd December 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Tom Gogola
Contributing Writer

To walk the Amtrak railroad tracks in Hollygrove — part of the so-called “Middle Belt” of the New Orleans Rail Gateway — is to walk through the backyard of a neighborhood in transition, a part of town at the Orleans-Jefferson parish line that hovers in a liminal zone between revitalization and stability, and the persistent poverty and crime that continue to define the neighborhood to the uninformed and oblivious.

Along the route, which runs along the Monticello drainage canal and then curves toward Airline Drive, the scene is replete with recently rehabbed post-Katrina homes, blighted homes between the rehabs that are over-run with weeds, and vacant lots with concrete pathways leading to nowhere, reminders that this part of town was drowned and left for dead by Hurricane Katrina. One small home along the route has been raised on cinder blocks; others are in the process of being rebuilt. Some are squalid and occupied. A few are literally yards from the tracks.

Nearby, a block in from the railroad tracks, the Paul L. Dunbar Elementary School is being rebuilt, and is scheduled to open in 2014.

Through the week, the temporary sound of pile-drivers at the Dunbar site resonates throughout the neighborhood, an overwhelmingly Black and working class part of town whose real estate values pale in comparison to the home values in Old Metairie, just over the line.

There are For Sale signs dotting the neighborhood, to go along with the ever-present Thou Shall Not Kill signs posted on many of the tidy and well-kept front lawns here. This is where the city launched its Best Babies Zone, out of a concern for the below average birth weights of children born to Hollygrove moms. On Sundays, the numerous neighborhood churches here pulse with Gospel music and the good word.

Now they will be joined by the possible racket of more than two dozen freight
trains a day squealing and grinding through the services. A long-standing proposal to re-route and enhance freight train traffic from Old Metairie – the “Back Belt”—through Hollygrove has been recently revived, spearheaded by a freight train industry eager to enhance efficiency and maximize profits, and by Jefferson Parish President John Young, eager to appease voters in this quaint and tony part of the parish.

The re-route plan has quietly gained steam among the local power elite and would bring with it the construction of an additional rail line to the Hollygrove neighborhood, built adjacent to the Amtrak line, which runs a scant handful of trains in and out of New Orleans every day.

The re-route proposal is one of two under consideration but a review of the available documents makes pretty clear that re-routing the trains and closing the Back Belt is the favored option by the freight train industry.

The Middle Belt railroad plan would bring 28 freight trains a day through the neighborhood, according to a December 2008 report by the Massachusetts-based Cam-bridge Systematics that was underwritten by the Association of Am-erican Railroads, which represents the interests of the rail industry.

It would involve the creation of an entirely new rail line, the report said, and the elimination of the baseball field along with the demolition of a couple of houses and businesses standing in the way of progress.

The driving concern with the trains in Old Metairie is the nuisance factor for automobiles, whether they are from Old Metai?rie or just passing through on the Metairie Road. The area has endured the trains for decades at the seven street-level crossings that snarl traffic and add over 100 hours a day in traffic delays, according to published studies.

One less-ambitious solution being considered would be to elevate the tracks in Old Metairie and eliminate the road crossings, but that doesn’t appear to be the preferred option for the half dozen “Class I” railroads that use the tracks in the Orleans Rail Gateway. It’s not John Young’s preferred solution, either.

Those railroads include the Union Pacific, the Kansas City Southern, the Norfolk Southern, BNSF Railway, Canadian National and CSX Transportation.

An environmental review of the plan is underway — but the environmental issues with freight train traffic are well-established, and are clearly illuminated in documents available at the state Department of Transportation website. The materials note that environmental issues played a role in nixing previous attempts to run the freight traffic through the Middle Belt.

“The City is monitoring the results of the environmental impact statement regarding potential community impacts,” Tyler Gamble, spokesperson for New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, said in an email. “We will work to ensure that any plan that is proposed addresses any and all community concerns that are raised.”

Old Metairie has dealt with the diesel engine emissions, the noise and the ever-present threat of a fuel or chemical spill from the trains for decades. The re-route would simply move those same problems, acknowledged as such by the industry, to Hollygrove.

The Cambridge report notes 44 percent of all freight train traffic in the state is made up of cars containing chemicals. About five percent of cars are loaded with petroleum, the report notes, highlighting the dangers of running freight train traffic through environmentally sensitive or residential neighborhoods.

What’s in the bargain for the residents of Hollygrove?

Not much.

A 2007 feasibility study by the engineering and architectural consulting firm Brown Cunningham Gannuch detailed the various alternatives and upgrades under consideration and said that the Orleans Parish City Council had requested “improved recreational facilities in the Hollygrove neighborhood,” as part of any agreement to re-route the trains.

“I am currently looking into the status of the plans for moving the freight train traffic from the Back Belt, which runs through Old Metairie, to the Middle Belt, which will increase freight train traffic in the Hollygrove area,” said Councilwoman Susan Guidry, who represents Hollygrove. “I have great concerns as to how this change will have an impact on the health and well-being of the residents in that area, as well as the quality of life issues such as noise and vibration. I question the need to put so much of the burden on one area of the city.”

The railroad re-route plan would actually eliminate one such recreational facility in the area, the Cambridge report noted, as part of the new rail-bed construction.

The Regional Planning Commission, one of three entities that commissioned the 2007 feasibility study (along with the Louis?iana Department of Trans?portation and Development and the Assoc?iation of American Railroads), said that the Middle Belt option had to also include “provisions for a future rail overpass structure” in the event that a light rail system connecting New Orleans to Baton Rouge ever got built. That translates into even more possible trains down the road.

Those 2007 findings were analyzed, echoed and amplified by the Cambridge Systematics study a year later, which said that the addition of 28 trains a day rumbling through Hollygrove would bring with them a likely “moderate decrease” in home values there.

Old Metairie home values, by comparison, would rise as the railroad departed. The Cambridge study also acknowledged that sound and other barriers would likely need to be a part of any deal to run the trains through Hollygrove.

Documents from the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development tell a story of a struggle over freight traffic through Old Metairie that goes back many decades. The general gist, gleaned from online documents, is that additional freight tracks were laid in at Jefferson Parish during WWII to accommodate New Orleans’ major industrial contributions to the “arsenal of democracy.”

When the war ended, the additional freight trains kept running.

A few times over the decades, localized public pressure to eliminate the trains entirely rose up—only to fade away. Some of those efforts yielded safety and aesthetic upgrades. Now the plan has reared up again, in a dodgy economy where maximizing profits and efficiency rides over regulations, and in a state with a lousy record when it comes to environmental concerns affecting poor people, particularly those of color.

The Cambridge Systematics study said the Gateway, which includes the New Orleans Public Belt that connects the Port of New Orleans with the larger regional rail system, is currently operating at full capacity and experiences about 30 hours of delay a day, spread through the various rail lines.

Some of the delay is attributable to the fact that the trains have to slow down as they rumble and squeal through Old Metairie. The main benefit of the move, the report said, would be the elimination of all the road-level crossings, and the speeding-up of the overall freight-moving infrastructure.

The benefits of re-routing the train traffic through Hollygrove outweigh the disadvantages, the report noted, most of which would be born by the residents, and would include, “if not mitigated, additional rail emissions, noise, and vibration; loss or relocation of two homes, two businesses, and an outdoor recreational field.”

Metairie would benefit with “reduced traffic delay and auto emissions from elimination of at-grade crossings; less emissions, noise, and vibration; and creation of additional developable land.”

“If the problem is traffic delays caused by the trains,” said former Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson, “then elevating the tracks solves the problem. If the problem is the noise and other pollution caused by the trains, moving the trains moves the problems somewhere else.”

“That’s called kicking the train down the road,” Johnson said.

And kicking a neighborhood right where it lives in the process.

This article originally published in the December 2, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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