Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has unveiled a restructuring plan for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, seeking to bring the agency more firmly under City Hall’s control before he leaves office in just over three months.
The plan would give the RTA board greater oversight of the private firm that runs the agency’s operations, Transdev.
It would also increase the number of people that the RTA hires directly, rather than through Transdev, and it would have an auditor take a deep dive into the transit system’s finances in recent years.
Landrieu reinstated the agency's independent executive director job last year after it had gone unfilled for more than two decades, during which time the local Transdev boss doubled as the executive director of the board supposedly overseeing the company's work.
The latest proposal would see that leader joined by a chief financial officer and a person overseeing route planning and development, along with an in-house general counsel, all reporting directly to the RTA board.
At present, the eight-member board — most of whose members are appointed by the mayor — directly employs only an executive assistant and contracts with an attorney.
Greg Cook, whom the board hired last April to be the executive director, resigned after only six months amid questions about his performance. Landrieu was personally involved in Cook’s hiring.
Landrieu’s newly appointed RTA liaison, Director of Safety and Permits Jared Munster, presented the restructuring plan to the RTA’s board last week, though the board did not consider it immediately.
RTA spokeswoman Malana Joseph Mitchell said Friday that members were still reviewing the recommendations.
The proposal is an expansion of the original vision Landrieu sketched out for the agency when it and Transdev signed a contract in 2015 that required the hiring of an independent executive director and a cap on the profit that the private firm could earn.
That agreement also laid out numerous performance standards that Transdev must live up to, including ensuring the reliability of buses, streetcars and paratransit service, that vehicles don’t break down, that preventable accidents are reduced and that ridership meets certain targets.
The latest proposal seems to acknowledge a need for more in-house staff at the RTA to help manage such issues. But at the same time, it asks the board to contract directly with the city to ensure Transdev complies with specific parts of its contract, at an initial cost of $50,000.
That would drop to $25,000 in later years, as the city grades Transdev on how well it has met at least 70 performance benchmarks. The city would provide monthly reports to the board on Transdev’s performance, according to Munster’s presentation.
To address the issue of costs and potential overbilling — Transdev had to pay back the RTA $1.1 million in 2016 after it exceeded its profit cap — Landrieu wants a comprehensive audit of the system’s finances, dating back to 2005.
While the proposal recommends that the board amend its current search for an executive director to include a general counsel and a financial expert, the deputy director of planning and service development would be hired later.
Finally, the proposal calls for more transparency. It asks the RTA board to post the materials it reviews during meetings and copies of board meeting minutes to its website.
The Mayor's Office has said its goal is to fill the executive director job by May, when the mayor leaves office. However, it's unclear whether that timeline would hold under a plan to hire three individuals instead of one, and given the board's failure to take action last week.
Also unclear is how Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell feels about the proposed reorganization. Traditionally, new mayors appoint their own people to boards and commissions and implement their own visions for city agencies not long after taking office.
Cantrell, who has created multiple transition committees, has not laid out a blueprint for transit.
But at least one member of her transportation committee says Landrieu’s proposal is a smart one. Alex Posorske of RIDE New Orleans, a group that has long advocated for stricter city oversight of Transdev, said Landrieu’s plan could help realize that goal.
“Having that breakdown of responsibilities and additional staff is a very positive thing from our perspective, and (the move) seems much more likely to bring in the oversight and the long-term strategic vision that the RTA board really wants to have moving forward,” Posorske said.