Port of New Orleans ready to take ownership of the New Orleans Public Belt

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NEW ORLEANS — For the first time in nearly 110 years, the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad will soon have a new owner. The New Orleans City Council is expected to approve transfer of the 26-mile terminal railroad to the port of New Orleans at its meeting on Jan. 11, 2018. Port officials say they expect to take control on Feb. 1, 2018.

The Surface Transportation Board on Dec. 28 gave its approval for the transaction. Under the agreement, the port is transferring two Mississippi wharves to the city, which plans to convert them to park land in exchange for the railroad.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu called the deal a “win-win for all involved” last June when the city and port announced they were entering negotiations.

In 2015, Landrieu proposed privatizing the railroad as a way of reducing a $100-million budget deficit. Port officials raised concerns that a private operator may not provide equal service to all of the port's tenants. The railroad connects with all six Class I railroads that serve the city.

Outright sale of the railroad met resistance so, last February, the city announced it was seeking proposals for a private operator to lease and operate the line. An undisclosed number of companies submitted bids, but the process stopped when the city and port announced a proposed land-for-railroad exchange.

The deal also transfers the Huey P. Long Bridge to port control. The railroad owns the bridge and maintains the railroad parts of the rail-highway bridge.

Sixty years ago, the railroad served more than 200 terminals and warehouses along the river, according to Doug Campbell, the railroad's general manager. That number has decreased ten-fold, but the railroad still serves the core of the port's tenants.

In March 2016 the port opened a $25 million container terminal with on-dock rail service. Campbell said future of the railroad is closely tied to “maximization of container opportunities.”

The port is a net exporter of loaded containers, and Campbell said the port is looking for a balance between imports and exports.

“We're looking for bigger opportunities with all the railroads,” Campbell said.

With the opening of new locks on the Panama Canal, the port expects growth in shipping from Asia.

The port “will plan synergistically and strategically for future investments and expansion to optimize operations for seamless multimodal solutions between river, rail and road,” officials said in a prepared statement. The port and railroad will be aligned in a master plan, and “port tenants will have greater certainty and comfort to make investments knowing the Belt’s future is secure and stable.”
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