Amtrak has fired back against the city of New Orleans, adding steam to a deepening imbroglio over a chain-link fence intended to protect the train tracks along Earhart Boulevard.
About a month after the city sued Amtrak, the company filed a countersuit Tuesday in U.S. District Court, claiming federal law trumps recent efforts by the City Council to derail the fencing project.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has said the fence sends the wrong message and, in recent court filings, warned it would discourage development along the Earhart corridor “precisely at the moment the neighborhood is at a critical tipping point toward a sustainable and prosperous future.”
Amtrak, however, contends the fence is needed to keep people away from the tracks and that recent actions by the City Council designed to forestall the project are “unenforceable.”
The company accused the city of breach of contract and cited a federal statute that it said affords Amtrak control of “all aspects of the rail passenger transportation it provides.”
The filing also claims that city officials have no right to object to the fencing “based on their prior contractual and policy approvals, including similar fencing surrounding other areas of the subject property.”
In a separate motion filed Wednesday, Amtrak asked U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier to dissolve a restraining order signed last month by a state judge that halted construction on the fence. A hearing on the motion is set for Nov. 19.
“Fencing is not uncommon where we have property,” said Marc Magliari, an Amtrak spokesman, adding that the New Orleans project wasn’t triggered by any particular incident. “We have been, around the country, surveying our locations to see where additional security measures are needed, and that certainly was brought to our attention by our employees down there.”
City officials have said the fence, designed to stand 7 feet high with an additional foot of barbed wire above it, would interrupt the nascent growth along the Earhart Boulevard corridor, an area they say was long neglected but now is home to “burgeoning businesses” such as Restaurant Depot, the corporate headquarters of Bridge House, the Sucré bakery and others.
“We now have the federal government creating a barrier to progress,” Stacy Head, the council president, said last month, deriding the fence as ugly, industrial and “prisonlike.” Head questioned the need for security measures on a track that’s “very rarely used.”
“I find it incredibly offensive,” she added, “and I think the federal government should stop.”
In its court filings, Amtrak said the project is in keeping with its “standard design for impasse security fences.” The company hired a local contractor to begin construction in early September “with specifically designated federal funds,” it said.
City officials say it’s Amtrak that’s guilty of breach of contract, saying the company disregarded a requirement that it “comply promptly with all applicable federal, Louisiana and local laws” during its lease of the city-owned rail facilities from the New Orleans Building Corp.
According to Landrieu’s office, representatives from the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development met recently with Amtrak officials but couldn’t reach a peaceful resolution.
“We’re continuing to have conversations with the city regarding this issue,” Magliari said, “but I can’t speak to those conversations and how well or not they’re going.”
The project, which had been slated for completion by the end of September, was nearly finished when the City Council intervened on Sept. 18, passing a unanimous motion barring the building of “any barrier or other obstruction” within 15 feet of the tracks between South Lopez Street and South Broad Street.
A day after that vote, the Department of Safety and Permits issued a stop-work order that city officials claim Amtrak disregarded “in violation of law.”
A second stop-work order was issued Sept. 25, and city officials filed suit the next day in Orleans Parish Civil District Court, persuading Judge Chris Bruno to sign a temporary restraining order. A hearing on the issue in that court had been set for Oct. 6, but it wasn’t held as Amtrak moved the proceedings to federal court.
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