Five railroad companies have expressed interest in taking over the New Orleans Public Belt Railroad, which includes 26 miles of track that connect six major rail lines serving the nearby port and industrial facilities, marking the first step in what may lead to a long-term deal that nets the city at least $60 million over 40 years.
The companies that responded to the city's request for qualifications include Illinois-based Anacostia Rail Holdings; New York-based MidRail; Colorado-based OmniTrax; and Watco Companies, a Kansas-based transportation firm. Another response came from a joint team of Connecticut-based Genesee & Wyoming and Oaktree Capital Management, a California global asset management firm.
Beyond the list of names, which were disclosed Thursday at the Public Belt's monthly board meeting, few details are publicly known about each proposal.
The responses, which were due early this month, come after two years of speculation over the fate of the railroad, which was put into motion after Thomas Coleman, the former CEO of International-Matex Tank Terminals, announced his interest in buying it. (Coleman is the father of Dathel Georges, who owns The Advocate along with her husband, John Georges.)
Mayor Mitch Landrieu previously urged the Public Belt's board to consider selling the railroad, eyeing a cash infusion for the city. That notion drew vocal opposition from local trade groups and maritime leaders, who feared losing control of the railroad would push prices higher for some users or lead to preferential treatment for others.
Late last year, the city took the idea of a sale off the table and began moving ahead with plans for a public-private partnership.
Ryan Berni, a top Landrieu aide who attends board meetings as the mayor's representative, said Thursday that it "does not appear" Coleman was involved in any of the five responses that the city received.
The city wants a 40-year lease that would net it a minimum of $20 million upfront and at least $1 million in annual lease payments, according to its 49-page request.
The selection process will operate in two phases. The five responses received this month were nonbinding. Now, a five-member committee will be tasked with reviewing the responses, choosing finalists and asking them to submit binding proposals.
The committee, which will include representatives of the city, the Public Belt and the New Orleans Board of Trade, will likely take that next step within two weeks, Berni told the board.
The city's agreement is expected to call for the operator to assume "the long-term business risks through the operational, capital improvements, maintenance and carrier responsibilities of the NOPB core rail operating assets," records show.
Proposals will be scored on several criteria, including feasibility, alignment with the city's objectives and an operator's past experience operating a railroad. The city also is requesting short- and long-term growth plans and a proposed plan for making capital improvements.
Berni, who described the respondents as having "extensive railroad experience," said the selection committee is on track to reach a decision by mid-summer.
Last year, consulting firm KPMG pegged the railroad's value at between $61 million and $196 million, not including the Huey P. Long Bridge over the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish, which the agency also owns. The bridge would be included in the potential lease.