Speaking to Mid-City residents packed into a cafeteria at Warren Easton High School during a community meeting Monday night, Councilwoman Susan Guidry took a firm stance against one proposal of the New Orleans Rail Gateway Program, a railroad upgrade which could ultimately result in up to 60 freight trains a day barreling through the city’s quiet Hollygrove neighborhood.
“My status right now is that this is totally unacceptable,” Guidry said, getting in response a round of applause. “We’ve got a saying: ‘We won’t be railroaded.’ I think this is the message we need to give.”
The message has stuck, and “We Won’t Be Railroaded” is now the title of a new committee organized by Hollygrove residents and community activists, its members announced during an informational meeting Tuesday. Nearly a hundred community members representing Hollygrove, Mid-City and Dixon neighborhoods came to the evening meeting held at City of Love church, which is tucked away on Palmetto Street, near where the action may be slated to happen.
Controversy is stirring because of this: the New Orleans Rail Gateway is a critical link in the national freight rail system, according to a report given to the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development, and it’s operating at near capacity. Federal dollars are at stake, and in order to increase productivity, railroad improvements need to be made.
Only, as the 2009 report outlines, each proposed railroad upgrade has disadvantages. For one, called the “Middle Belt Alternative,” Mid-City, Dixon and Hollygrove neighborhoods could see “additional rail emissions, noise and vibration; loss or relocation of two homes, two businesses and an outdoor recreation field.”
“We don’t see this as strictly a Hollygrove issue, but it’s a New Orleans issue,” Rev. Earl Williams, the new committee’s chair, said at Tuesday’s meeting. “One of the things we’ve decided is, we don’t want the trains. Absolutely, emphatically, unequivocally, we do not want the trains.”
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 the eighth largest tonnage port in the United States and number one by cargo, according to the New Orleans Rail Gateway Benefits Report and a website devoted to gateway background information.
As the gateway network operates now, in Old Metairie, the network experiences a combined 30 hours of delays a day, according to the study. The current network goes through the “Back Belt,” which also goes from East City Junction/I-10 to Airline Highway.
A new study began in 2011, the “New Orleans Rail Gateway Program,” is examining alternatives to this route, and anticipates being finished by 2014. The “Middle Belt” option, which affects Mid-City and Hollygrove, involves dismantling much of the Back Belt, and routing east-west rail freight traffic. Tracks would be added past Hollygrove/Dixon and the “Carrollton Curve” beneath the Interstate Highway, then north via the UPT line along I-10 in Mid-City.
Currently, the study is in the “environmental evaluation phase” of the project, according to Enrico Sterling, a representative of Guidry’s office.
According to Tim Garrett, a researcher who created the “background info” website on the proposed project, the estimated “Middle Belt” project would cost about $700 million.
Another rail corridor exists along the Mississippi River, called the “Front Belt.” While committee members at the meeting said that the “Front Belt” option was considered, they also expressed the opinion that it wasn’t given much weight due to the impact it would have on the French Quarter.
The city could also make improvements to the “Back Belt” to make the upgrades more feasible, and that’s another option on the table, Garrett said.
The “Middle Belt” option appeared to be the most popular so far, Garrett added, but according to Dr. Kate Lowe, the Professor of Urban Studies at UNO, that option could result in legal ramifications due to protections residents are entitled to under the Civil Rights Act.
“It has real relevance to what’s going on in your neighborhood,” Lowe said about Title VI of the act, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
As the trains operate under federal funding, Lowe explained that neighborhood citizens of areas affected by the proposed construction have rights to ensure that they are properly protected.
“Low-income and minority communities shouldn’t be suffering more harm,” Lowe said, adding that those communities are also not allowed to receive less benefits from transportation changes.
According to Lonnie Hewitt, the Sub Committee Chair and Managing Partner of Hewitt Washington Architects, the change from a train railway in the “Back Belt” option to the “Middle Belt” would further increase the disparity of property value and general wealth between Old Metairie and Hollygrove and Mid-City.
“We have tried not to be anti-Metairie, but if it’s taken out of Metairie, it’s going to increase value there,” Hewitt said.
For other residents, health seemed to be the main focus of the “Middle Belt” proposal. Some concerns included potential safety hazards like spills from freight cars carrying chemicals or petroleum, as well as derailments.
Shirley Butler, a Hollygrove resident with fibromyalgia, said she’s concerned about the noise.
“It’s going to make it worse,” she said. “You’re talking about a lot of noise.”
The “We Won’t Be Railroaded” committee plans to collect petitions against the proposed “Middle Belt” upgrade to present to the DOTD, the Regional Planning Commission and city officials in a meeting as early as next month, members said at the end of Tuesday’s meeting.
“We want to develop a list of concerns,” Hewitt said. “This is not a done deal.”