New Orleans, Port To Swap Railroad For Wharves

June 12, 2017

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced June 7 an agreement in principle between the city, Port of New Orleans and New Orleans Public Belt Railroad to transfer operations and assets of the railroad from the city to the port. The Port of New Orleans in turn will transfer two of its riverfront wharves to the city, which will bring contiguous public access to a total three miles of Mississippi riverfront in the heart of the city.

The New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which began operating in 1908, is a Class III railroad owned by the city of New Orleans. The Public Belt Railroad provides switching services that connect all six Class I railroads in the city across about 100 miles of track. The Landrieu administration had sought to either sell and privatize the railroad or shift operations to a public-private partnership in order to inject revenue into city coffers. That desire, though, never caught on with shippers and Public Belt users, who feared privatization would increase costs and hamper the port’s competitiveness. The proposed agreement should allay those fears in bringing the railroad under the control of the Port of New Orleans and further enhance the port’s reputation as a major intermodal hub, officials said. The Port of New Orleans is the only seaport with connections to all six Class I railroads.

In exchange for the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, the Port of New Orleans will transfer the Governor Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves to the city. The wharves are located just downriver from the city’s historic French Quarter. Repurposing the wharves as public spaces will connect Crescent Park, which extends 1.4 miles downriver from the wharves, and the Moon Walk, a riverside park adjacent to the French Quarter. The Moon Walk is named for Landrieu’s father, Moon Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans from 1970 to 1978.

The port’s board of commissioners and the New Orleans Public Belt Commission were scheduled to hold special meetings June 9 and today (June 12), respectively, to consider the preliminary agreement.

‘Win-Win-Win’

"This is a win-win-win for all involved,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Our guiding principle from the outset of this process has been to do what is in the best interest of the citizens of New Orleans. It is clear that the Public Belt Railroad is a critical element of the port’s competitive advantage, which means it is critical for the future growth potential in trade and commerce and the long-term economic success of the city. Improving the port’s competitive advantage will mean more good-paying jobs for our residents. Also vitally important is our ability to open up our special riverfront to the public.”

Both Brandy Christian, president and CEO of the Port of New Orleans, and New Orleans Public Belt Railroad CEO Douglas Campbell joined the mayor in announcing the agreement.

“This process brought the city and port together to comprehensively evaluate public assets and to realign property based on our individual missions,” Christian said. “This plan allows the city and hospitality to maximize public use at the front porch of the city. The port gains the ability to strategically invest in cargo movement by water and rail to drive economic growth and job creation.”

“Aligning the Public Belt with the port gives us long-term stability and renewed momentum to pursue our growth potential while capitalizing on the synergies between us,” Campbell said. “The port and the Public Belt have a record of teamwork dating back to our inception over 100 years ago. We will continue to work hand in hand in partnership to facilitate commerce and economic development for the region.”

The agreement and transfer of the Governor Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves will necessitate the relocation of tenant TCI Packaging, which handles sacks of PVC resin at the wharves and has a longterm lease in place.

“The Jensen family of businesses has invested over $100 million in Louisiana since Hurricane Katrina, creating over 300 jobs,” TCI founder Jack Jensen said in a statement. “Our success is built on the strong partnerships we enjoy with the Port of New Orleans, the Public Belt and the City of New Orleans. As New Orleanians, we are pleased to be able to work with our public partners to achieve the common interest of maintaining the Public Belt as a publicly held entity while providing public access to such prime river access as the Governor Nicholls and Esplanade wharves for the first time in generations. Our family is confident that this plan will increase New Orleans’ competitive edge in international trade and logistics globally.”

The destination and relocation timeline for TCI is yet to be made public, but the announcement of the agreement stated that “some public access to the riverfront is expected to be provided in 2018.” The port is also expected to work with the local hospitality industry to secure up to $15 million to convert the wharves into public spaces.

Also under the terms of the agreement, the port is expected to “recognize the rights of the employees of the Public Belt system under existing contracts and applicable law.”

Nadine Ramsey, District C council member whose district includes the wharves, said, “The Port of New Orleans serves as one of the most important engines of trade and economic growth and the Public Belt Railway facilitates the activities of the port. Combining the two will speed the current growth that the city is experiencing, increasing jobs and the tax base for the city. The land swap has the added bonus of opening up more green space, making the riverfront more attractive to tourists and improving the quality of life for residents. This deal is a win-win for business and citizens alike.”