Transit advocates are urging the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority to begin a search this summer for firms that could manage the agency's operations once its contract with its current manager expires next year.

They say such a step will ensure a smooth transition should Transdev, a private French transportation conglomerate, not be rehired.

The RTA first hired Transdev, formerly Veolia Transportation, to run its buses, streetcars and other operations in 2008. The firm’s latest contract will end in August 2019.

While it’s possible that Transdev will again get the work, officials with TransitCenter, a New York-based foundation focused on transit advocacy, asked the RTA board on Tuesday to let a wide range of firms know that it is looking for other options by issuing a request for “expressions of interest” this summer.

A formal request for proposals would be released in the fall, said David Bragdon, the group’s executive director.

The RTA should also hire a consultant to help manage the contract negotiation process because the agency currently has no in-house staff with the experience needed to do that, he said.

“You have a rare opportunity to use this prospective contract as a lever to significantly improve the expectations and performance of transit in New Orleans,” said Bragdon, whose foundation funds the local transit advocacy group Ride New Orleans.

While the board took no action on the requests Tuesday, board Chairwoman Sharonda Williams and member Sharon Wegner expressed support for the ideas offered. Board members Flozell Daniels and Barbara Waiters also thanked the group for their advice.

The suggestions come two months after Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration unveiled a plan for restructuring the RTA and ensuring closer scrutiny of future management contracts.

But that plan, which would have beefed up the RTA’s in-house staff and given City Hall more direct oversight of Transdev’s contract, was put on hold after Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell told the RTA board not to make any major changes until after she takes office in May.

Cantrell has not yet revealed a specific transit plan or announced whether she will retain the five RTA commissioners who serve at the mayor’s pleasure. However, new mayors often change the membership of city boards and commissions.

Bragdon and other transit advocates have said the RTA should be transparent with potential bidders about its needs, and be sure that any formal request for proposals explicitly states the chief goals of the strategic mobility plan the agency approved this year.

They want the board to award the new contract by early 2019.

Bragdon's group also offered to help the RTA compare its current contract with Transdev to those of other public transit authorities that outsource their operations, and to set up meetings between RTA members and members of other transit boards.

Williams praised the group's recommendations.

“Right now, as everyone knows, we don’t have an executive director in place and staffing,” she said. “I think a consultant would be beneficial to completing that timeline.”

TransitCenter unveiled a study last year that criticized the RTA’s lack of in-house oversight of Transdev, depicting the arrangement as an example of the pitfalls that can occur under such public-private partnerships.

That study also chided the RTA’s recent hiring of Greg Cook, the first in-house executive director in two decades, who left after six months on the job amid questions about his performance.

Ride New Orleans, which TransitCenter funds, has separately criticized several other Transdev moves, including its decision to use RTA operating funds to finance a study on extending the North Rampart-St. Claude streetcar line. 

Some board members said recently they felt misled by that decision, having received previous assurance that such a study would be done with federal grant money.

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.