Wednesday, November 30, 2016

New Orleans Public Belt Railroad - Interview with Mayor Mitch Landrieu - Part 1

At the end of August, Mayor Landrieu made good on his offer to allow me an interview with him regarding the fate of the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad.  The interview lasted an hour and I'm going to break it up in to sections on a few, possibly three, posts.

In this first sound byte, I asked the Mayor why he seemed so intent on selling and/or leasing the NOPB when nearly all of the other stakeholders, including the main stakeholder - The Port of New Orleans, were adamantly opposed to changing the status quo of the entity established over a century ago.  He quickly corrected me stating that his intent was not necessarily to sell the NOPB but to get an evaluation of the entity as a City asset:

NOPB - Mayor Landrieu - reasoning behind KPMG evaluation from Jason Berry on Vimeo.

The KPMG evaluation was delivered to the City a couple of weeks ago and in the last Board of Commissioners meeting the Mayor's representative on the Board, Ryan Berni, announced that the evaluation did not recommend a sale.  However, it did recommend either entering a public/private partnership for the lease of the Public Belt to be managed by a private company or maintaining the status quo of the NOPB with the City making improvements to the line in a yet to be determined agreement with the NOPB.

Berni then informed the Board that an RFP will be floated by the City to determine interest in the public/private lease option.

As I've posted previously, the Public Belt was originally designed to be a kind of market regulator for the Port of New Orleans.  It was never designed to be a profit-generating entity.  The Belt is a unique municipal asset among American cities in that it was created as a public entity to control rail costs for merchants looking to do business with the Port of New Orleans.

In that respect, many of the businesses that have invested in New Orleans, such as warehouses located along the NOPB line, built their investments on the premise that the rail lines connecting the Port to the Tier 1 railroads would remain in the public realm.  By privatizing the Public Belt (even as a public/private lease) a private company would immediately look at ways to gain a competitive advantage and subsequently pose a potential threat to the bottom line of not just the ancillary companies serving the Port but the Port itself.

Twisted Tracks

In the nearly 116 years since the NOPB's inception, some very complicated agreements with the Class 1 railroads have sprung up along with murky, undefined trackage rights. The most notable is a Joint Maintenance Agreement for the Huey P. Long Bridge involving The State of Louisiana, the NOPB (City of N.O.) and two private Tier 1 companies: BNSF and Union Pacific.  .

(For reference and the sake of brevity, I will list some of the main issues at the bottom of the thread for those who want to dig through them.)

In the interview, I asked both the Mayor and Ryan Berni if the KPMG evaluation was taking into account these myriad contract agreements and trackage rights issues that have developed over the last century surrounding the Public Belt and if it was even possible to create an accurate evaluation without understanding and unraveling these complications:

NOPB - Complications in trackage rights, etc. from Jason Berry on Vimeo.

I have not yet obtained a copy of the KPMG evaluation but have reached out to representatives from the company for comment.  I am not sure if the evaluation did take in to account any, all or none of the agreements of which I queried Mayor Landrieu and Berni.

In the meeting last week, Port stakeholders voiced their opposition to the public/private lease option and even the release of the RFP, stating it was creating a market disruption for future investment and business in the Port.  Berni dismissed the concern, noting that the NOPB just turned in a record month.

Also in the meeting, a letter was read from an attorney who represents the Tier 1 companies, Carmac M. Blackmon, esq., voicing the national rail carriers opposition to the public/private lease of the NOPB.

The dissent of the Tier 1 companies is disconcerting.  If these companies such as BNSF and Union Pacific decide to play hardball on the trackage rights issues upon the NOPB being leased to a private company, it could lead to a protracted legal battle with the City resulting in the NOPB losing access to portions of the NOPB line.  Worse, it could lead to some or many of the Tier 1 companies deciding to pull out of New Orleans completely, creating a significant disruption in Port business and operations.

I asked the Mayor if he was concerned about the effect the potential sale/lease of the NOPB was having on the Port, I will address that issue in the next post.

Contractual Issues surrounding the New Orleans Public Belt (not a definitive list):

-  The NOPB has twelve agreements with Canadian National Railway that range from trackage rights, customer service and wharfs, intermodal, and interlocker usage and maintenance. Canadian National actually owns a portion of the NOPB mainline that allows the NOPB to use for free.

-  The NOPB has three agreements with CSX Railroad regarding trackage rights, track maintenance, and signal maintenance of the Almonaster Bridge over the Industrial Canal which lies on the CSX mainline.

- BNSF has trackage rights from Avondale, over the Huey P. Long, all the way to Gentilly.

- The Huey P. Long Bridge is under a Joint Maintenance Agreement between BNSF, Union Pacific, the State of Louisiana and the NOPB.  It is unclear how the two Tier 1 rail companies would react to a private company taking over maintenance and full access to the bridge of which they have an ownership interest.

- The City would have to get federal approval from the Surface Transportation Board to lease the NOPB.

- Will the City protect the labor union jobs if the NOPB is leased to a private company?   Currently the NOPB supports about 160 high paying jobs.  How many of these jobs will be eliminated if a private company runs the Belt?

- Local stakeholders have existing agreements and contracts with the NOPB. Will these contracts be honored and if so for how long?

- The lease of the NOPB could greatly affect the New Orleans Gateway, particularly the highly trafficked French Quarter.  As of now, the City has ultimate control over the union workers that operate the NOPB and can control issues surrounding highly trafficked tourism events such as Mardi Gras.  The introduction of a private company could negate much of the control the City exercises over the rail usage and interfere with high volume events.  Especially if the Tier 1 companies choose to exercise their own trackage rights and bypass the NOPB altogether.

- Under current state laws, the NOPB and the City do not share revenue, expenses, or legal liability.  How will these issues be resolved and will it require changes to law on the state level?

-  Currently the NOPB is exempt from property and sales tax.  Would these exemptions be eliminated if a private company runs the Belt and if so how would that affect the cost of business for the Belt and subsequently the Port?

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