Mar 12, 2024 - Newcomers Guide

Jefferson Parish planning to drop out of New Orleans RTA

Illustration of a waving emoji displayed on a bus shelter.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

Jefferson Parish is on the verge of dropping out of the New Orleans RTA amid a brewing contract scandal.

Why it matters: The RTA hasn't ever been a truly regional transit authority, and now hopes of improving matters are hitting a major snag.

  • "We have to have this kind of connectivity," says Courtney Jackson, the executive director of transit advocacy organization Ride New Orleans. "It's not a want. It's an absolute need."

The big picture: The state Legislature formed the RTA in 1979 to collectively serve Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes, but that collaboration never truly materialized.

  • Today, the RTA offers few service lines that cross into Jefferson Parish, and just one in Chalmette, while Jefferson Parish operates its own transit authority.
  • But job opportunities, health care needs, education opportunities and other services don't end at parish borders. About 10% of the current RTA ridership relies on routes that cross parish lines, Jackson tells Axios New Orleans.

"What's scary is we could jeopardize the regional coordination we do have," Jackson says of Jefferson Parish's pending exit. "We don't know how this is all playing out. This happened really, really fast."

Catch up quick: The trouble began when, in February, news broke that the RTA was investigating one of its contracts with Metairie company BRC Construction Group.

  • The RTA initially approved about $250,000 in work with BRC, but under facilities manager John DiLosa, that contract grew to about $1.3 million without any other bids.
  • That includes a $550,000 change order approved by RTA commissioners last September, primarily for work that had already been completed.
  • A public bid process would have been required for a contract of that size.
  • The internal RTA investigation report was conducted by an outside law firm and it said the agency, in particular CEO Lona Hankins, may have failed to properly deal with the contract issues, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reports.

State of play: At the RTA's February board meeting, board members went into executive session to discuss the investigation report.

  • Afterwards, RTA Chair Mark Raymond Jr. told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that he stood behind Hankins' leadership.

But then, four RTA board members resigned, including one from Orleans and all three for Jefferson Parish.

  • One of them, Brian Bruno, referred to a "possible FBI probe" in his letter, according to the paper. (An RTA spokesperson tells Axios New Orleans that the organization has "not been informed of any criminal investigations.")
  • The RTA is able to continue day-to-day work, but with that many board resignations, it lacks a quorum to conduct official business. The organization is planning its March board meeting as usual, a spokesperson says.

The latest: The breakup may be permanent.

  • Jefferson Parish President Cynthia Lee Sheng said Friday that she'll appoint temporary board members so the RTA can continue doing business — but she's also asking state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing the parish to drop out of the organization for good, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reports.

Worth noting: DiLosa, who was fired in October, told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune that he sought board approval anytime it was required.

  • The internal investigation report said he was terminated after walking off the job for a week and declining to agree to a performance improvement plan, the paper reports.

What we're watching: Should Jefferson Parish make its exit official, it's not clear how that'll impact future regional transit efforts.

  • But current RTA routes, including those to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, would not be affected, according to an RTA spokesperson.
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