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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis October 10, 2011
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IN THIS ISSUE: Coverage of the 2011 APTA Annual Meeting & EXPO in New Orleans!

RTA Recovering and Thriving Post-Katrina Through Hard Work and Partnerships

The Oct. 4 Host Forum at the 2011 APTA Annual Meeting and EXPO highlighted the efforts of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005—for which APTA honored the agency with its first Special Recognition for Extraordinary Recovery.

Huelon A. Harrison, chair, APTA Business Member Small Business Committee; former chairman, Dallas Area Transit Authority; and principal, Legacy Resource Group, Dallas, moderated the session.

RTA Board Chairwoman Barbara C. Major spoke enthusiastically and passionately about the resurrection of New Orleans. She cited the innovative methods RTA employed to improve mobility, ridership, and operations and how they served as a “major contributor to the city’s renewal.” For example, the RTA Board of Commissioners entered into a contract with Veolia Transportation in 2009; Veolia now manages all major transit authority responsibilities and operations.

“RTA is doing an amazing job, and we’re creating a model that may be used in other parts of the country,” Major said.

Transit service, she said, “contributed to the revival of New Orleans in the wake of the man-made disaster where 1,600 lives were lost.” Many RTA employees lost loved ones, she said. “They lost everything. We lost key talent who went to other cities; we lost office facilities. For four years, administrative staff worked out of trailers.”

Major said RTA sent the call for help to APTA and “we are so grateful for the buses, the parts, the people, and the morale boost it provided.”

Justin T. Augustine III, RTA chief executive officer, said the agency needed a transformation. “We needed to transform our mindsets. We were in financial trouble; we needed a branding system,” he said. The result: RTA deployed a completely new fleet, revised bus routes, improved passenger information, installed automated ticket vending machines, introduced Global Positioning Satellite technology, and launched a new state-of-the art passenger web site. Customer satisfaction is up dramatically and ridership has grown in the last three years by 30 percent.

But, he added, this process was extremely challenging and RTA had to consider the sensitivities of residents. “People were fearful; they felt let down. We had to make sure we provided opportunities to relieve that fear,” Augustine said. “It was a true collaboration. FTA was also by our side to help.”

Judy Reese Morse, New Orleans first deputy mayor, said 80 percent of the city was destroyed following Katrina. “But this is a city of people who will not quit,” she added. “We learned that New Orleans had to do everything possible to come back. We found our direction and transportation was a vital part of that recovery.”

Mark Romig, chief executive officer, New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, added: “Service workers and tourists alike touch our public transportation systems. This is a great partnership with our tourism industry. We could not do it by ourselves.”

Harrison asked RTA Commissioner Charlotte Burnell why the agency selected Veolia. “The system was totally broken, and we had to decide what to do next,” said Burnell. “We decided it was in the best interest of the city and RTA to send out RFPs for a delegated management company. It was difficult; tough decisions had to be made. It’s the best of public-private partnerships that we could not have generated on our own,” she added.

Next, Harrison asked Mark L. Joseph, chief executive officer, Veolia Transportation, why the model is unique and if could it work in other places. “We’ve been in business for 150 years,” Joseph responded. “We’ve created public transportation in many places of the world. We bring resources from around the world.” He cited similar partnerships at Foothill Transit in West Covina, CA, and the Chatham Area Transportation Authority in Savannah, GA. “There are great efficiencies achieved through these kinds of partnerships,” he said.

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