Hundreds of residents came out to Lafayette School Thursday night to protest a freight railroad upgrade option that would reroute train traffic from Metairie into Mid-City and Hollygrove.
During a public meeting, held by the “We Won’t Be Railroaded Coalition,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry challenged portions of an environmental study on the New Orleans Rail Gateway Project that transportation officials presented to audience members.
Right now, transportation officials are only considering two options, said Chris Gesing, the consultant for the Michael Baker Corporation that is conducting the study for the Department of Transportation and Development and the rail companies. One is the Back Belt option, which would keep the trains in Metairie, raise tracks to improve traffic and lower roadways at certain crossings.
Another is the Middle Belt option, which would involve adding another track through Mid-City and Hollygrove to allow trains to go in both directions, Gesing added.
According to the study, the Middle Belt option of the project is feasible because it allows freight traffic to go through more “industrial” areas — as opposed to the more residential areas in Jefferson Parish.
Prompting cheers from the hundreds of spectators, Guidry countered that only a portion of the affected Midde Belt area was industrial, adding that “the other part is people’s homes, businesses and a playground.”
She added that some parts of the study were based on opinion rather than truth, and claimed that so far only Jefferson Parish residents had fully been allowed to give input about where to place the train traffic.
“We will not agree to this,” Guidry added, about the Middle Belt option.
Guidry also read a statement from Mayor Mitch Landrieu in the meeting, which began by saying, “I do not support a significant shift of freight rail traffic through Hollygrove or Mid-City,” and added that he wanted what was best for the city of New Orleans.
According to Dean Goodell, the Gateway Program Manager at the DOTD, the goals of the rail project are to improve congestion, safety at railroad crossings and productivity in the national railroad system.
Plus, Goodell added, if improvements aren’t made in New Orleans, the railways could reroute business elsewhere, causing a loss in jobs and a putting a damper in the local economy.
The city’s rail gateway serves freight rail traffic from six Class I railroads, or those defined as having a 2011 operating revenue of $433.2 million, according to the Association of American Railroads. Through the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, the Gateway links the Port of New Orleans, which is expecting future cargo increases, according to the New Orleans Rail Gateway Benefits Report.
But at Thursday’s meeting, local residents complained about the need for a comprehensive health study on the issue, as well as the potential for the Middle Belt option to increase noise in the affected neighborhoods, disrupt already-shaky housing foundations and lower property values.
More than 1,000 petitions were handed to Goodell at the beginning of the meeting, and residents presented a newly-formed resolution.
“RESOLVED, that the citizens of New Orleans, including but not limited to the neighborhoods of Hollygrove and Mid-City, will work with and collaborate will all governmental agencies, parties and advocacy organizations to ensure that our stance against the re-routing and expansion of trains through our communities is honored and accepted,” the resolution read.
At the end of the meeting, Goodell and other officials clarified that both the Middle Belt and the Back Belt options were being given “equal” consideration, and that the various organizations involved in the study would start conducting public meetings in Spring 2014 to get further input from community members.
The process still has many more steps and meetings amongst officials and communities before a decision can be made, Goodell said.
“We have a long way to go,” added DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett.