On paper, the railroad tracks that run through the center of downtown Gretna could be moved — taking all the traffic snarls, aggravation and hazards with them — by early next decade.
In reality, however, it all comes down to timing and money.
The Regional Planning Commission, Jefferson Parish and Gretna recently agreed to help fund a $640,000 environmental study of moving the tracks — which now run down the middle of Fourth Street — to a route running parallel to Peters Road to the east and then south of the Naval Air Station.
Moving the tracks would eliminate more than 100 street crossings and 1.5 miles of in-street track, and it would allow the portion of the line that runs alongside the Belle Chasse Highway for just over a mile to be incorporated into a widening of that busy artery.
Robert Bach, president and chief operating officer of Rio Grande Pacific Corp. — which owns the 32-mile-long New Orleans and Gulf Coast Railway line on the West Bank — said the railroad supports moving the tracks to a more industrial route, telling the Gretna City Council last week that rail traffic on the line has increased by a third since 2007 and is expected to keep growing.
Bach went so far as to say that congestion will become untenable if the projected $350 million relocation project does not occur. And with broad support of elected officials, industrial users and business groups, not to mention the economic benefit of the construction work, optimists certainly have reason to point to the project’s projected seven-year time frame.
Bach cautioned, however, that a lot of moving parts still need to come together, and he said the railroad’s expectations of increased business along the line will need to be realized. And then, of course, there are the issues of acquiring the land for the new route and figuring out who’s going to foot the bill and how.
The project reportedly is in line for $6 million in state capital outlay funds, but the railroad hasn’t said how much it is willing to pay.
Bach said the railroad’s first focus is on extending the line another 6 miles south to a proposed port in Plaquemines Parish. The Plaquemines Port Harbor and Terminal District purchased 550 acres last year for the new facility, and while there are still several hurdles for it to clear, Bach said the railroad expects that project to come to fruition.
Once the line is extended, perhaps in two years, it would take an estimated three to five years to move the existing rails, assuming land purchases go smoothly and the funding is secured.
Gretna City Council members have been optimistic about the odds of the relocation happening, pointing to the willingness of the railroad to back the project and the fact that it’s in the industry’s financial interest. Residents fearful that coal trains serving a proposed coal export terminal in Plaquemines will begin running through town have been more skeptical.
Speaking to the council last month, Pat and Gayle Bertucci expressed doubt that a $350 million rail relocation project will take place when they said they can’t even get the railroad to help pay for street damage caused by trains.
Time will tell whose expectations are correct.