Just after noon on March 15, a white panel van approached the railroad crossing on Metairie Road at Frisco Avenue. Traffic was backed up, and the driver stopped on the tracks.
Motorists who have traversed that intersection in recent months can guess what happened next.
The gate arms came down. The van was trapped. A CSX Corp. train, running on the Norfolk Southern track, approached the intersection. The train, moving slowly because of rail speed limits, clipped the back quarter panel of the van, nudging it out of the way.
A couple of minutes later, the driver, who remains unknown and was apparently uninjured, drove away from the scene, according to a Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office accident report.
So far this year, there have been three such accidents at the busy Metairie Road intersection, the same number as for all of Jefferson Parish in the previous two years.
There is no obvious explanation for the recent uptick: Nothing about the intersection has changed. More folks have either been caught stopping on the tracks or trying to beat the train, said Capt. Jason Rivarde, a spokesman for Sheriff Joe Lopinto.
Nevertheless, residents have been flooding social media with pictures and renewing their calls for local and state officials to come up with a permanent solution.
"It's a serious problem and it really hurts the economy on Metairie Road," said Skip Bagaley, who owns Salon Senoj, a business that faces the tracks. Worse than the accidents, he said, are the backups whenever trains pass, which can stretch for blocks. Even when they don't trap unsuspecting motorists on the tracks, the slow-moving trains leave cars frozen in both directions.
"You never know when it's a really long train," Bagaley said. Like many locals, Bagaley has watched some of the recent accidents, including the one on March 15.
"We see it all the time," he said. "Nothing ever gets done about it."
It's not for a lack of studying the problem. Complaints stretch back decades, as do studies to fix the problem.
The first of those was in 1975. But nothing came of that effort. Ditto for studies in 1989, 1996, 2002, 2004 and 2007.
In 2011, a new approach was launched called the New Orleans Rail Gateway Project. It began as a study of the Metairie Road intersection but was expanded to include all of New Orleans' busy rail corridors, from Avondale to Gentilly, said Dean Goodell, a Department of Transportation and Development official who is the state's point man on the project.
The study has produced some publicly discussed proposals, including one to redirect the train traffic through Metairie a bit farther to the south and through Hollygrove in Orleans Parish. That proposal was opposed by Hollygrove residents. Another proposal called for elevating the track through Old Metairie to eliminate the choke points at Metairie Road and Labarre Road.
There have also been talks about moving major parts of the traffic to the west bank and to the north shore, Goodell said.
"None of the solutions is perfect," he said, adding that the negotiations have been complicated by the variety of players at the table: state and federal officials, along with representatives of six different railroads, all of whom have their own agendas.
"Trying to get all the entities to agree is difficult," Goodell said.
The study is a collaborative effort between DOTD, the Regional Planning Commission, the Federal Railroad Administration and the six major railroad companies that own the tracks that flow throughout the city.
According to the DOTD website, the study — now in its eighth year — is expected to be completed in the fall. That may be optimistic, but Goodell is hopeful there will be developments in the near future.
"We think we're close," he said.
Steven Bel, president of the Metairie Road Business Association, isn't counting on it. He said his group met with Goodell five years ago and was told there was not nearly enough money in state coffers to elevate portions of the track, and that moving the trains to another neighborhood, especially a low-income area like Hollygrove, would cause political backlash.
"We stopped following it after that meeting," Bel said. "Our take is that it's there, and it's gonna be there."
Jefferson Parish Councilwoman Jennifer Van Vrancken said she has approached state officials about possibly coordinating the traffic light at Focis Street with approaching trains, so that when one is coming, the light can turn green for those on Metairie Road, which would allow anyone trapped on the tracks to move off of them, she said.
Meanwhile, she urged drivers not to try to beat the train.
"Those gates are there for a reason," she said. "It's a poor decision to make."