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‘We won’t be railroaded’ in Hollygrove, Councilwoman Guidry says

(map via DOTD)

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.

Mid-City residents gather in City of Love church in Hollygrove to learn about the potential impacts of railway upgrades. (Della Hasselle,

“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.”

8 Replies to “‘We won’t be railroaded’ in Hollygrove, Councilwoman Guidry says

  1. It’s imperative that New Orleans citizens bone up on NORG, because it has so many moving parts. For that purpose, I maintain this “backgrounder” document at http://504.LA/norginfo

    With so much to lose, the residents of Hollygrove are justifiably leery of the so-called “Middle Belt” project, which would subject them to incidents not unlike this train derailment that happened just recently in Metairie:

    The sheer number of train (passenger and freight) derailments across the U.S. in recent years boggles the mind. Combine that statistic with the proportion of train cars carrying hazardous materials, plus the volume of through traffic headed our way this decade … it really makes you stop and think twice about routing all those trains through — rather than around — New Orleans!

  2. Metairie residents were promised one or two years’ plan and they have lived with the clogging of the main thrufare for many years- nothing has happened other than a few autos hit by trains over the years-
    Having the hazardous cargoes move through our City is at issue
    The City would not be here were it not for the Port of NO- The Port needs a way to transport the cargoes.
    Spending money for the railways and the end users to benefit is not in our best interests-
    Even for the money- we are only here a certain amount of time so planning the proper and safe transport of goods through the port City that we are is in our National best interests-
    Deceide on whether you want the other port cities of Gulfport, Houston, Mobile and Baton Rouge to be used instead of us.
    I agree, changing a route is smart- but displace the fewest number of citizens of the State- Charge the rail lines significant money to use those lines- and improve the nationwide network of rail lines- with non-hazardous cargo!
    GO AMtrak! We can have folks using passenger trains lines for our new Medical Center in Mid- City – or the Jail in Mid City but Dont ship dangerous chemicals through Mid- Coty- They can all use Northshore lines that wont be damaged when next storms hit!

  3. Immediately/Directly impacted businesses under the “Desired” NORG Plan – Carruth Brothers Lumber, Joule Energy, and The Crystal Preserve Apartments all of which land within the expected path of the proposed Carrollton Curve (See NORG Rail Plan sheet 406)

    There’s also a small set of warehouses within the footprint at the end of D’hemecourt Street which would be demolished.

    By proximity the recently expanded Mid-City Yacht Club will be impacted *especially* if St Patrick Park were consumed by the increased rail traffic. Current plans show the rail “clips” the end of the park (Left Field)

    All houses at the corner of S St Patrick and D’Hemecourt Streets would (more than likely) be demolished. Several of them are hundred-year-old architecturally significant shotgun houses, and several are slab-on-grade

    Home values in the immediate area have risen significantly in the past several years (see Real Estate Comp Data) and ongoing renovations along Banks Street, South Olympia, Baudin and D’hemecourt Street would all be affected.

    Furthermore, the West Bound exit ramp encapsulating Tulane Avenue, Carrollton Avenue, and Howard Avenue as well as the East-bound exit for Airline Highway would be affected for the duration of construction, as the proposed Carrollton Curve runs through the middle. The Airline Highway flyover ramp would have to be changed given there is no clearance for trains to pass underneath (see NORG Cut Sheet 405)

    This is especially significant since it would make this exit relatively impassable for the duration of construction, having a direct impact on Xavier University and access to the recently built CostCo.

    Further impact depending on the “proposed” demolition of the raised section of I-10 over Claiborne Avenue -or- the proposed removal of exit ramps along the Claiborne Avenue, eliminating Interstate access to the LSU Hospital Complex and proposed renovation of Tulane Avenue for the duration of construction.

    Good thing it’s only a Hollygrove problem though.

  4. The most logical location for high-traffic rail systems to connect and run is right next to the interstate, and as the plan is now, it could easily connect alongside 610, and run its way out. The problem is that it would require more finding and more than likely, some imminent domain claims to clear the pathway for the trains along the Elysian Fields trainyard to reach the 610 and run with it.

    In every city, it is expected that moving freight will be an issue, but if you run all transit on the simple artery, and add in your utility, and possibly a secondary rail system for human traffic, you can make a simple area where all of the most destructive traffic can be, and leave the rest of the city to be what it is supposed to be, a web of traffic, business, and residence. with manufacturing and agriculture along pockets and fringes.

    1. The rail already parallels with I-610. The problem is how does the rail make its way from West End/I-10 to the rail yard at at L & A Road along Airline Drive in Shrewsberry.

  5. Keep the lines where they are. It’s the Metqairie road traffic that needs rerouting, not the railroad tracks!!! I live in Old Metairie.

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