It’s the same old story. You try to do someone a favor, but there’s not a word of thanks.
Rerouting freight trains from Old Metairie to Hollygrove is an idea that has been kicking around for years, but the feds cannot put off a decision much longer. Jefferson Parish President John Young says the move would be a boon for New Orleans, but the City Council is so lacking in gratitude that it has come out in opposition.
Hollygrove residents say the rich, white folks can keep the approximately 25 trains that transport chemicals and other hazardous materials through the leafy suburbs daily. The rerouting proposal is just another example of environmental racism, they say.
They could hardly think anything else. Life would certainly be sweeter in Old Metairie if all those locomotives trundled through unprivileged New Orleans neighborhoods instead. Young and other proponents suggest the move would benefit New Orleans along with the entire metropolitan area, but the blessings would not be apparent around Hollygrove. The idea of taking one for the team, when the most obvious beneficiaries inhabit what is largely a white enclave, is never going to catch on with black citizens.
The New Orleans rail network, the fourth-largest “gateway” in the country, is such a mess, however, that a major overhaul is imperative. The track is so congested that freight trains suffer 30 hours of delay every day, while road traffic belching noxious fumes is constantly backed up at a plethora of grade crossings. Just about every day, moreover, some dumb driver will pull onto the track behind stationary traffic on Metairie Road only to bail out when a train rounds the curve about 100 yards away.
The economic havoc that results from all the delays will only get worse, moreover. The state Department of Transportation and Development expects tonnage on the railroad to increase 60 percent by 2020.
The Federal Railroad Administration, together with the American Railroads Association and assorted state and local agencies, has concluded we have two options. The first is to stick with the current route, the so-called back belt, elevate the track and replace grade crossings with underpasses.
The second is to shift freight trains to the middle belt, which runs through Hollygrove and is currently used only for a couple of passenger trains a day.
According to a report prepared by the Railroads Association, the middle belt option would remove “all rail-related traffic delays, noise and vibration in the Metairie neighborhood,” while requiring “compensation and relocation of two homes, two businesses and an outdoor recreation field” in New Orleans. “Noise and visual buffers between the rail line and the neighborhoods” also would be needed.
That doesn’t sound like much of a deal for New Orleans, and the City Council duly passed a resolution opposing the middle belt option and calling on the Rail Gateway Program to explore alternatives that do not “jeopardize the health, safety and welfare” of its constituents in the Hollygrove area.
Constituents in other parts of the city might be better off it the middle belt got the nod, however. The current track runs through City Park, where a marshaling yard is a major blot on the landscape. Its removal would be warmly welcomed by constituents living nearby.
The back belt moreover crosses Airline Highway and I-10, where underpasses flood in a moderate downpour. A dumber arrangement on major hurricane evacuation routes could hardly be imagined. The “health, safety and welfare” of New Orleans residents would certainly be served if trains switched to the middle belt and those could be filled in pronto.
Either option under consideration would reduce freight train delays, although the middle belt would provide much more scope for the growth that will be needed and enable the Port of New Orleans to expand intermodal container shipping.
If the guiding principle is the greatest good for the greatest number, maybe the middle belt is the smart choice. But history does lend credence to the notion that black people will be first choice for the short end of the stick regardless. Although regional benefits of moving the trains may be obvious to Young, it’s thanks, but no thanks, from the other side of the 17th Street Canal.
The final decision will be up to the Federal Railroad Administration, but it may be that those folks who bought houses near a busy railroad track in Metairie will just have to keep complaining about the trains.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.