It was standing room only last night at a meeting of the Coalition United Against the Middle Belt, a group opposed to rerouting freight trains through Hollygrove and Mid-City from their current path through Jefferson Parish. The slogan "We won't be Railroaded" was plastered on signs among the crowd.
The New Orleans Rail Gateway is the fourth largest gateway in the country and services both the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Southeast Louisiana. Chris Gesing, a project leader with the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD), said the gateway is riddled with deficiencies. The question neither he nor Dean Goodell, the Gateway’s program manager, could answer was why a reroute was necessary to address the gateway’s antiquated infrastructure.
“There are a number of different projects that are part of the overall project that have nothing to do with the back belt or the middle belt,” said District A New Orleans City Councilwoman Susan Guidry. “They’re just improvements that the railroads need to make in their system. So some of these improvements have nothing to do with whether we put the trains on the back belt, where it is now, or move it to the middle belt, which [runs past] Hollygrove and Mid-City.”
Passenger trains travel the Hollygrove and Mid-City route, but residents are concerned freight trains carrying hazardous materials would pose significant health threats to their communities. One woman asked what she would do if a freight train spills over while she’s stuck behind a railroad track. Goodell told her she’d have to rely on New Orleans’ emergency response, an answer that drew sarcastic chuckles.
The mayor issued a statement, which Guidry read aloud at the meeting, opposing the reroute. A decision on the project is expected by 2015, but Guidry assured the crowd of about 300 people: “We will not agree to this. You can rest on that.”