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Plans to prevent trains in Hollygrove pick up steam

27th January 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Mason Harrison
Contributing Writer

Residents committed to thwarting a plan to reroute rail traffic from Jefferson Parish through the city’s Hollygrove neighborhood gathered Jan. 23 at Lafayette Academy to formalize their objections to the proposal before officials from the state’s department of transportation and development. Removing trains from Old Metairie Road to ease traffic conditions and improve the surrounding areas has been an issue in southeast Louisiana since just after the Second World War.

But a plan floated by state officials that would send trains into the heart of one of New Orleans’ oldest communities has residents in the area responding that they “won’t be railroaded,” according to signs that dotted the entrance to the academy in the twenty-seven hundred block of S. Carrollton Ave. Councilmember Susan Guidry, who represents the area affected by the proposed route changes, said, “If New Orleans doesn’t want this to happen, then its not going to happen.” Guidry said state, local and federal officials all have to sign off on any eventual route changes or modifications and insisted that she would never back a plan to haul industrial materials through Hollygrove. She also indicated that the other six members of the City Council agree.

The issue, known as the “middle belt” proposal, unites both Black and white residents in the area who contend that poor health outcomes, reduced property values, and an increase in noise pollution await the neighborhood should officials authorize a change in the direction trains can take to reach their destinations. Residents also expressed concerns that a possible derailment involving hazardous chemicals could destroy a community that has been slow to recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina eight years ago. “Who do we call if there’s a spill? Who can I sue?,” asked one attendee. Area residents have formed the “Coalition United Against the Middle Belt” to oppose the plan.

“I hear people saying that this is supposed to be about the greater good,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, who heads Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, adding, “But what this really sounds like to me is that you are asking people to make a sacrifice for somebody else’s good.” Hanging over the debate is the image of an unwanted transportation route in a largely white affluent area of suburban New Orleans being floated as an option for a poorer and more Black community. Area residents read a resolution blasting the plan and called for an end to “environmental racism.” Others expressed concerns that the proposal could violate Civil Rights legislation protecting communities of color from the adverse effects of environmental and development-based public policy.

Dean Goodell, who spearheads intermodal transit initiatives for the state’s transportation department, assured residents that their concerns would be taken into consideration as the state continues with its environmental impact study of the proposal, which, according to some estimates, could cost upwards of $700 million to complete. Other plans include elevating the existing railway in Jefferson Parish and lowering streets, when necessary, to accommodate for those changes. “Elevating the track and lowering the streets is not difficult to do from an engineering standpoint and it is a heck of a lot cheaper,” said Tim Garrett, an engineering consultant and railway historian.

But Drew Ward, a candidate for the District A seat on the City Council, believes an even better, and overlooked, option exists for moving materials through New Orleans that would not disrupt area communities. “Most of the rail traffic that comes through the city is on its way to somewhere else,” Ward says. “There’s about 30 percent of it that currently runs along what’s called the front belt,” he adds, referring to the rail lines that run along the edge of the east bank side of the Mississippi River. “Because most of these freight trains are not actually doing business in the city, there’s no need to bring them into neighborhoods and destroy people’s quality of life.”

Ward believes funding exists to create an intermodal transit option that would combine rail and vehicular traffic coming out of areas south of New Orleans where residents have limited emergency evacuation options. “Right now there are rail spurs along 4th Street on the west bank that could be connected to a new bridge on that side of the river that would allow people further south and east of New Orleans to have additional options when leaving during a hurricane and avoid having to send trains over the Huey P. Long Bridge into the heart of the city because the spurs are located in sparsely populated areas where it would be less dangerous to transport hazardous materials.” Ward also says gutting the current rail plan would free up space for additional streetcar lines.

“This type of plan is not unlike what Mayor Landrieu did in getting money to pay for the new streetcar line now at the Grey­hound station. Federal money would be available from the transportation department, homeland security and possibly other agencies. We need another bridge anyway and the costs for building one would not be as high as some people are projecting.” Ward plans to meet with local elected officials to tout his method for addressing the middle belt controversy.

But for residents attending the community meeting, which lasted for more than an hour, a solution to the idea of placing rail lines through Hollygrove cannot arrive soon enough. The event was filled with pointed questions and occasional interruptions by attendees hoping to wring answers from state officials about the exact nature of the plan and the involvement of the rail industry in floating the idea.

Goodell stressed the importance of keeping heavy rail in the New Orleans area to maintain the hundreds of jobs connected to the industry. “If we make it difficult for the rail companies to operate, then they’ll go somewhere else,” he said. Future public meetings about the proposal are slated for the spring and summer as more research information about the project becomes available.

This article originally published in the January 27, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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