The head of the Port of New Orleans on Thursday acknowledged ongoing talks with city officials about the future of the Public Belt Railroad but declined to discuss specifics detailed this week by The New Orleans Advocate about a potential land swap that would put the railroad in port hands.
Speaking toward the end of Thursday's Dock Board meeting, Brandy Christian, the port's CEO, said recent talks with city officials have touched on "multiple scenarios, and that does include the future of the New Orleans Public Belt, which as this board knows was created for the Port of New Orleans and has been a big concern, not only to our operations but to all of our shippers."
Christian added, "Those conversations, I would say, they're positive, they're ongoing, and if and when we have a recommended course of action, we will bring it back to this board for consideration."
Christian quickly left the meeting without taking questions.
Port spokeswoman Michelle Ganon said the port would have no further comment.
New Orleans officials are trying to orchestrate an elaborate swap that would turn over the c…
The Advocate reported Tuesday that New Orleans officials are working to pull off a deal in which the city would turn over the Public Belt to the port in return for the last two working wharves along the downriver end of the French Quarter.
The deal could alleviate concerns among port officials about the future of the railroad, which is crucial to their operations, and which Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has considered privatizing.
For the city, gaining control of the last bit of working riverfront between the Central Business District and Bywater could potentially open up uninterrupted access for the public to a two-mile stretch of the riverfront in the city's historic center.
The Advocate's report Tuesday cited multiple sources familiar with the talks, who declined to discuss the negotiations for attribution because they are ongoing.
The two port-owned sites at the center of the discussions are the Gov. Nicholls Street and Esplanade Avenue wharves.
The two wharves lie between Crescent Park, the $30 million, 1.4-mile linear riverfront park in Bywater and Marigny that was completed in 2015, and the Moonwalk, the stretch of riverfront near Jackson Square that Landrieu's father, former Mayor Moon Landrieu, helped open to public access in the 1970s.
The Public Belt Railroad, which is owned by the city, includes 26 miles of track connecting six major rail lines that serve both the port and nearby industrial facilities. The Landrieu administration has for nearly two years been exploring the possibility of leasing the railroad to a private firm as a means of generating cash for the city.
But talk of privatizing the railroad has sparked concern on the Dock Board and among clients of the railroad, who fear a private firm would be more concerned about bringing in revenue than in keeping costs down for users. A takeover of the railroad by the port would presumably allay those worries.
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. Five firms responded to a bid solicitation in March.
Under the most lucrative of those arrangements, submitted by New York-based MidRail, the city would receive as much as $55 million upfront and another $76 million over a 40-year lease term.
Discussions over the future of the railroad began after Thomas Coleman, the former CEO of International-Matex Tank Terminals, announced an interest in buying it. (Coleman is the father of Dathel Georges, who owns The Advocate along with her husband, John Georges.)