Federal grant to finance a new ferry terminal at the foot of Canal Street _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Passengers disembark from the Mississippi River ferry in Algiers. A new ferry terminal is in the works.

Officials at the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority have landed in a dust-up over whether to spend an extra $750,000 to expedite construction of two new high-speed boats for the Canal Street ferry terminal.

The dispute is raising questions about how the RTA handles contracts and, at least for some transit advocates, driving home the need for better oversight of the private company that handles the agency's operations. 

The RTA board went for decades without having its own executive director, instead using an executive of the operating company. And the official hired to take that role this year, Greg Cook, resigned last week after only six months on the job. 

“We again call for bringing on a new executive director with all feasible speed and haste,” said Alex Posorske, of RIDE New Orleans, a transit advocacy group.

At issue are two new high-speed boats Transdev wants to have delivered to the Canal Street ferry terminal by March 21, to coincide with the expected opening of the new terminal itself.

The cataraman-style boats would carry up to 149 passengers each across the river between Canal Street and Algiers Point. Under a resolution the RTA approved in January, the board was supposed to spend no more than $10 million on the boats.

The firm tapped to build them, Metal Shark of Jeanerette, originally had until late May 2018 to complete them, officials said.

But Transdev officials later negotiated a $10.7 million contract with Metal Shark with a March 21 delivery date, according to the contract, which The New Orleans Advocate received in response to a public records request. 

That change also would ensure the boats are delivered before Mayor Mitch Landrieu leaves office in early May and in time for some of the city’s tricentennial celebration events.

Transdev presented the altered contract to RTA Board Chairwoman Sharonda Williams, who signed it in May. 

The hitch came because her signature on the contract did not automatically authorize Transdev to spend the full $10.7 million because the board had signed off on only $10 million. And when Transdev came to the board last week asking for a resolution allowing the bigger sum, board members refused to go along. 

Even Williams objected to spending the extra money; she acknowledged in a statement Monday that she had not realized she was signing a bigger contract than had been previously approved. She also said it is not normal procedure at the RTA for staff to finalize a contract and only then go the board for the necessary funding. 

Transdev Vice President Justin Augustine III referred questions about the contract to his chief investment officer, Mark Major, who did not immediately reply to questions. 

It seemed clear at last week's board meeting that Williams had not been aware that she had signed off on a bigger contract. She specifically criticized the $750,000 rush order, saying the RTA could instead be spending that money on additional bicycle racks and other features some ferry riders have asked for.

Other board members said there is nothing stopping the RTA from using its current boats to transport passengers back and forth from the new terminal for a few months, and they chastised Transdev for not presenting the matter to the board's Finance Committee, where it might have gotten closer scrutiny. 

Their comments came after Skip Gallagher, an Algiers resident, lambasted the board for the expensive new delivery date.

“If you were accelerating the schedule, say, a year, I think that might be quite a reasonable thing to consider," Gallagher said. "But two months?”

The board rejected the Transdev request and asked it to explain how it has worked to accommodate residents' wishes about the boat designs. 

Asked whether the fact she signed the increased contract amount would pose legal problems for the RTA if it doesn’t uphold its end of the bargain, Williams declined to say. She said the RTA board, Metal Shark and Transdev are working “to determine the best solutions for this project moving forward.”

Posorske, the transit advocate, didn't fault Williams for failing to realize the contract had grown, given that board members are volunteers and serve on a part-time basis. 

But he said the episode only reinforces the need for an executive director with experience in budgeting and transit management. 

“I think the chairwoman in general is doing a thankless job in a thankless role and needs the support of a paid professional staff to help her in that,” Posorske said.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.