In a start-of-the-year shake-up, the private company that runs daily operations at the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority has ousted its chief investment officer, Mark Major, a veteran transit official who landed in the middle of a recent dispute over the agency's new Canal Street ferryboats.
Major, 57, has worked in various roles at the RTA — including general manager — for more than three decades. At present, the agency’s private manager is Transdev, a French transportation conglomerate.
Late last year, Major emerged at the center of a dust-up over a $750,000 rush order for new high-speed boats for the Canal Street-Algiers Point ferry line.
Board Chairwoman Sharonda Williams signed off on the expedited job, which had not been approved by the agency's full board, but claimed later not to have realized what she was signing.
When Transdev Vice President and RTA General Manager Justin Augustine was asked in October why Williams was not briefed on the issue, he referred all questions to Major.
The rush order would have ensured the delivery of the boats by March 21, when the new Canal Street ferry terminal was supposed to open and ahead of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s May departure from office.
Major did not return a call for comment.
A spokeswoman for Transdev would not release details this week about Major's departure, which coincided with the firing of at least half a dozen other employees.
“Transdev’s goal is to ensure we are meeting the current and future needs of the RTA and its mission of enhancing the lives of residents and visitors,” spokeswoman Candice Marti said. “We continuously evaluate our organization’s structure and skill set for opportunities to improve transit services.
“As with any organization, this sometimes results in adjusting job roles and responsibilities.”
By Friday morning, Transdev had removed Major’s name, picture and title from the management team’s listing on the RTA’s website.
Williams said that she and other board members were aware of the terminations.
Major joined Transit Management of Southeast Louisiana in 1983, the year that firm was first organized to run the RTA’s operations. Before then, the city’s buses and streetcars had been run by New Orleans Public Service Inc. From 2006 to 2008, Major served as the RTA general manager, replacing Bill Deville.
In that role, Major fought to keep the agency's operations under local employees’ control but eventually lost out to Transdev. Augustine, a former RTA administrator who returned to his native New Orleans from California to lead Transdev’s new outfit, hired Major as an assistant.
Major’s role as chief investment officer put him in charge of various RTA projects, including the Canal Street ferry terminal project and boats.
Under a resolution the RTA approved in January 2016, the agency was supposed to spend no more than $10 million on the catamaran-style boats, which will carry up to 149 passengers each across the river between Canal Street and Algiers Point.
The firm chosen to build them, Metal Shark of Jeanerette, originally had until late May 2018 to complete them. But Transdev later negotiated a revised $10.7 million contract with Metal Shark with a March 21 delivery date.
Transdev presented the altered contract to Williams, who signed it in May of last year. But the board hadn’t approved the extra money, which some observers said could have been spent instead on additional bicycle racks and other features some ferry riders have asked for.
Williams said she didn’t realize what she was signing, and advocates cited the episode as proof that the RTA needed an executive director of its own to keep a closer watch on its private managers.
Williams on Thursday said the departures of Major and the others will not negatively impact RTA riders. “We are confident that Transdev will continue to fulfill its contractual obligation to the RTA and effectively manage the organization's day-to-day operations,” she said.
The other dismissed employees include Frances Bowie, Leah Ferrer, Vivek Shah and Deidre Williams, who all worked at least some of the time in Transdev’s planning and scheduling divisions; Merlene Hunter, an administrative assistant; and Ninette Barrios, whose last title was customer service manager, according to sources familiar with the terminations.
Hunter and Williams could not be reached for comment. Ferrer, who has worked at the transit agency since the late 1970s, and Bowie declined to comment. Shah confirmed he had been fired but declined to discuss the matter further.
Barrios said she was fired on Jan. 8 — a little more than a week after she complained to human resources officials about discrimination within the agency. The Nicaraguan native said she was passed over for promotions that went to less qualified staffers and that she believes her ethnicity played a role in that and in her layoff.
“We did nothing wrong,” she said. “All we wanted to do was come and work, and work hard. But they just decided that we were the wrong fit, for whatever reason.”
Transdev's New Orleans office employs more than 750 people.