Public Belt board to meet Thursday in wake of offer to buy railroad _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--The New Orleans Public Belt Railroad building is seen in Jefferson, La. Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015.

The New Orleans Public Belt Railroad’s board voted Monday to strip the potential sale of the publicly owned and operated railroad from a list of options in a study, but a city official said afterward that the sale option will be evaluated because the city is funding the study.

The standing-room-only meeting drew comments from more than a dozen business people and rail workers, who overwhelmingly spoke against a potential sale. Doing so, they contended, would be short-sighted and create uncertainty.

“It puts a hex over huge investments that we’re making, not just for the fun of making a big investment in New Orleans, but these are investments that create jobs and they’re jobs that stick,” said David Kearney, president of the Kearney Companies, a third-party logistics company that operates at the port.

The study, which will be conducted by Dallas-based consultants from KPMG, had four options on the table to identify pros and cons of each: potentially selling the assets and business; retaining it and keeping the status quo; maintaining the status quo but with improving efficiencies; and signing a long-term public-private partnership with an operator that would invest in the line while the city retains ownership.

Several board members, including board President Pro Tem David Schulingkamp and Kyle Wedberg, said that at this point, they are against moving toward selling the rail.

“I don’t know that anyone has presented in the initial valuation any logic on the sale that is compelling, and I don’t know that it’s even possible,” Wedberg said.

The board gave the study a 60-day timetable to be completed, but with the potential of a sale being removed as one of the four outcomes being considered.

However, Ryan Berni, a longtime top aide to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said after the meeting that the study would proceed with the four options. The city plans to foot the bill, which may cost up to $50,000.

The Public Belt’s assets and business were valued by KPMG at $61 million to $196 million, based on various scenarios.

Questions about the railroad’s future have swirled for more than a year. Previously, Thomas Coleman, the former CEO of International Matex Tank Terminals, announced his interest in buying the Public Belt. Coleman is the father of Dathel Georges, who owns The Advocate along with her husband, John Georges.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.