The ongoing controversy at New Orleans Public Belt Railroad presents Mayor Mitch Landrieu with an early test of leadership — and an unprecedented opportunity. The city-owned rail line, which serves the Port of New Orleans and owns the Huey P. Long Bridge, has operated so quietly that most voters didn't even know it existed — or that the city owned it — until a few weeks ago.
Recently fired Public Belt chief Jim Bridger changed all that. Bridger lost his $350,000-a-year job after media accounts of his freewheeling use of NOPB's credit cards, including more than $108,000 on meals in three years.
The NOPB mess landed in Landrieu's lap shortly after he became mayor — as if he didn't already have enough on his plate after Ray Nagin's disastrous two terms. Now he has to figure out what to do with a city-owned rail loop.
Give Bridger credit for this much: He turned around the Public Belt in his early years at the helm. In the last year or so, NOPB fell on hard times, mostly because it lost its biggest client. Bridger's mistake was not scaling back his expenses during that time.
As mayor, Landrieu is the nominal president of the NOPB commission, although mayors typically don't get deeply involved in railroad affairs. Landrieu doesn't have the luxury of delegating this mess, however. He made an early assessment of the situation and moved to clean house — getting Bridger to resign and asking all members of the NOPB commission to do likewise. Most have done so.
That was the easy part.
The hard part starts now: What to do going forward? Landrieu wants to start with a clean slate, which is why he asked all commissioners to resign. Beyond that, he has to address the fundamental issue of whether the city ought to remain in the railroad business. He has several options.
On one hand, he could ask the commission to consider leasing out the loop to an existing railroad for a percentage of the gross revenue. That would turn the asset into a revenue generator — and put its day-to-day management in the hands of people who actually know how to run a railroad.
Another option, which has been discussed privately, is selling the line. Several sources say one railroad already has tossed out the prospective purchase price of $1 billion. A mayor can do a lot with $1 billion, including squander it. Thank God Ray Nagin is no longer mayor.
Whatever the mayor and City Council decide to do with NOPB, any windfall from a sale or lease should go into an infrastructure trust fund rather than get spent all at once. Why an infrastructure fund? Two reasons: first, it's a like-for-like use of public assets; second, New Orleans has massive infrastructure needs that cannot be met all at once. The prudent thing to do would be to sell bonds for citywide street, drainage, sewer and water improvements — and use the interest from the trust fund to pay off the bonds. With up to $1 billion in the bank, we'd have a better bond rating (and pay less interest) than just about any public entity in the world.
And the $1 billion corpus would never have to be touched, which means we could continue to upgrade and maintain our infrastructure for a long, long time.
As an aside, Landrieu also should not separately sell NOPB's expensive, luxury coaches. They are historic treasures and should go with any sale or lease of the entire line.
NOPB may operate below the radar, but it serves a vital economic development function. The port cannot function well without it.
Which means Landrieu has to get this one right.