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Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018

No-Blow Zone

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Is Shreveport getting Railroaded on Lake Street?

It sounds simple. And in theory, it is.

But theory and reality rarely match up. Such is the case with the Lake Street railroad crossing.

The goal is to re-open the railroad crossing between Spring Street and the Clyde Fant Parkway. This section has been blocked off since January 2015.

The ordinance authorizing the temporary closing expired on Jan. 5, 2017. Now, some 22 months after the expiration date, Lake Street is still closed at the railroad tracks.

The local players affected by the closed crossing are on the “open back up” train.

These include Sci-Port Discovery Center on the parkway, the Holiday Inn, The Chateau hotel and all the Lake Street occupants between Marshall and Spring streets.

The one big catch, at least for the Holiday Inn, is the incessant blowing by trains crossing that intersection. Under federal law this is required unless railroad crossing arms are installed.

The Holiday Inn suffered mightily from the horn blowing during the evening, night and early morning hours. The resulting low occupancy rate cost the hotel its Holiday Inn “flagship”—Holiday Inn branding.

Once the crossing was closed, the hotel was able to regain its Holiday Inn status after the owners spent $5 million to remodel the facility. This will be lost, again, if the crossing is opened and the railroad horn blowing resumes.

Thus, the Holiday Inn wants a “quiet zone” crossing, which can only be achieved by the installation of crossing arms.

The cost of the cross arm installation is estimated to be about $700,000. The hotel has escrowed money to pay 50 percent of the costs. And the city of Shreveport has agreed to pay 50 percent of the cost of crossing arms.

Seemingly, the Union Pacific Railroad should be on board with this project. But so far this has not been the case. To say that Union Pacific has been slowing down the “open back up” process is an understatement.

Maybe it’s the future cost of maintaining the crossing arms. Perhaps it’s just the basic indifference of “make me” or “we were here first,” that being the railroad before Holiday Inn and Sci-Port.

All this is not sitting well with Shreveport Council members Oliver Jenkins and Jeff Everson.

Jenkins introduced the original resolution to close Lake Street. Everson represents the downtown area, and he has now introduced an ordinance to open the street back up. The council should vote in November on the ordinance.

Both Jenkins and Everson want this matter resolved before they leave office in mid- December.

Everson’s ordinance authorizes the city engineer and director of public works to “begin the process” on Jan. 1, 2019, to reopen vehicular access to Lake Street from Commerce Street to Sci-Port. This process is to commence only if “significant progress” has not been made on this project.

In other words, the city is to push ahead on Jan. 1 if the standoff with Union Pacific continues.

Unfortunately, the city is in a big no-win posture if the railroad stays put and the street is opened without crossing arms. In that scenario, the horn blowing would resume and the Holiday Inn would again be faced with losing its flag.

Carl Hagans, the general manager of the Holiday Inn, made that point very clear at a recent Council meeting.

Hagan said that in 2017 the Holiday Inn paid over $162,000 in sales tax to the city of Shreveport. This year more than $275 grand in sales tax will be paid. The Holiday Inn also paid over $80,000 in ad valorem taxes on the facility and its contents in 2017.

Hagan estimates a drop in occupancy sales tax revenue of at least 33 percent if the Holiday Inn brand is lost. Additionally, 80 of the 100 Holiday Inn jobs could be eliminated; most of these are African-Americans.

Hagan also advised the Council that the hotel ownership group now owned the Best Western Chateau Hotel. They are in the process of spending $4 million for a total renovation and remodeling of this facility. This facility will re-open as a Holiday Inn Express sometime next year and should generate over $200,000 in sales tax.

Hagan said, “The Holiday Inn at Shreveport Downtown and its management company are deeply invested in Shreveport. We are proud to be a part of the downtown area. We hope that we are able to continue a successful relationship with the city and its citizens. We are eager in reaching a solution to the Lake Street crossing and will continue to offer our support on the best possible outcome for all involved.”

Hopefully, the Union Pacific Railroad will offer their cooperation with the city. The reopening of Lake Street with crossing arms would be a plus to all concerned.

John E. Settle Jr. has been a resident of Shreveport since January 1977. His articles appear regularly in local publications. He can be reached at 742-5513 or e-mail to: secretary@jesettle.com.

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