RTA Interim Executive Director Jared Munster and Jennifer Terry of RIDE New Orleans listen to a presentation from MV Transportation Credit: Michael Isaac Stein / The Lens

On Wednesday, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority heard presentations from the two firms competing for a contract to run the operations and maintenance of the public transit system — France-based Transdev and Dallas-based MV Transportation.

Transdev is currently on contract with the RTA and has run practically every facet of public transportation in Orleans Parish since 2009. It was paid $80 million in 2017, according to a study commissioned by the RTA last year. But even if the RTA chooses Transdev, the company’s role will be significantly rolled back.

Instead of running the entire system, as Transdev does now, the chosen firm will only take charge of operations and maintenance — primarily handling the buses, ferries, and streetcars that carry people around the city. Meanwhile, management and administration will mostly fall to an expanded RTA staff. Currently, the RTA only has two employees, but it plans to add more before Transdev’s current contract expires on Aug. 31. It’s unclear how large the staff will be, but according to the RTA, it will at hire approximately 60 administrative employees currently working for Transdev.

The majority of both presentations featured broad and somewhat vague ideas about accountability, public engagement, data measurement, and technology. But the specifics of each plan, such as how much each firm would charge or what initiatives they would launch, were largely absent.

“Our technical approach involves planning, innovation, execution, and measurement.” said Darryll Simpson, Trandsdev’s new general manager for its contract with the RTA.

The details of each firm’s plan are contained in their individual responses to the RTA’s Request for Proposals. But those aren’t being released to the public until after the RTA board makes a final decision, said Deslie Ann Isidore, the Executive Assistant to the Board. She told The Lens they are keeping the proposals out of public view because they contain proprietary information. She added that the policy is part of the RTA’s standard procurement procedures.

“As much as we want the public to come and participate and give us meaningful feedback on these things, we can’t give out the information to get meaningful feedback,” said Jared Munster, the Interim Executive Director of the RTA.

When asked what he thought were the most important differences between the two public presentations, Munster said, “That’s the kind of stuff we can’t talk about.”

The board broke off into executive sessions following each presentation, during which the public was asked to leave the conference room, to discuss the private aspects of their proposals.

The RTA has endured years of criticism for outsourcing nearly all of its responsibilities to Transdev. In 2017, a report produced by two transit research nonprofits criticized the RTA for making serious contracting mistakes in the rush to rebuild the system in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“The RTA’s complete lack of in-house staff expertise has limited the agency’s ability to effectively oversee such extensive contracting,” it said.

It also noted that public transit has yet to return to pre-Katrina service levels. That sentiment was echoed by New Orleans resident Wanda Davis at Wednesday’s meeting.

“Before Katrina the service was great,” she said. “There is no good bus service here anymore. It made me late getting here today.”

The RTA initiated the process to overhaul its operational structure in July, when it hired two contractors — Management Partners of Cincinnati, Ohio and TMG Consulting of New Orleans — to recommend changes. Their study looked at three potential options.

The first was New Orleans’ current model — the “delegated management structure,” in which contractors run virtually all aspects of public transit. The second was a “directly operated model,” in which the RTA controls the transit system with little or no help from outside contractors. The third option was a “hybrid” model that mixes aspects of the first two.

In October, the firms released their report recommending a hybrid model with an expanded permanent RTA staff and a more limited operations and maintenance role for contractors. By the end of October, the RTA board accepted the recommendations. And in January, it released a Request for Proposals for a firm to fill this new, diminished role. According to the RFP, the contract will be for three years with the option to extend for an additional three years.

The RTA board says it will make a final decision on which firm to hire at its May 28 meeting. The chosen firm will start transitioning RTA’s structure in June, more than two months before Transdev’s current contract expires on Aug. 31.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...