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RTA picks new CEO as New Orleans transit agency considers big projects

An RTA bus outside of the Main Library.
Carly Berlin
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WWNO
An RTA bus outside of the Main Library.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority board named Lona Edwards Hankins the new chief executive officer of the agency at a special board meeting on Friday.

Hankins has served as the interim CEO since December, after former CEO Alex Wiggins stepped down. She previously oversaw long-term planning and infrastructure improvement projects for the agency. Before coming to the RTA, she served as the director of major capital projects for the Louisiana Recovery School District, helping rebuild New Orleans’ public school system after Hurricane Katrina.

She was selected over another internal candidate: RTA veteran Mark Major, who has worked on and off for the agency since the 1980s.

Lona Edwards Hankins, the new CEO for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. Photo courtesy of RTA.
NORTA
/
NORTA
Lona Edwards Hankins, the new CEO for the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. Photo courtesy of RTA.

At several recent RTA meetings, some called the agency’s hiring process for the top job opaque, especially in light of a change to the position’s requirements. When the RTA’s former CEO was selected, candidates needed to have at least five years of senior leadership experience at a transit agency in order to qualify, according to NOLA.com. But this time around, candidates only needed to have three years of experience.

That change narrowly qualified Hankins for the job.

“There was something questionable about this process,” Barbara Major, a former RTA board chairman, told board members before they made their decision. “That you lowered what was required.”

Kory Dupree, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1560, which represents RTA bus drivers and streetcar operators, also called for greater transparency, and asked the RTA board to choose the most qualified applicant for the job.

After the board selected Hankins, Dupree said he hopes she will do “the right thing for my unionized members” in a brief statement after the meeting.

Others applauded the board’s choice, including Courtney Jackson, executive director of RIDE New Orleans, a local transit advocacy group.

“We appreciate [Hankins’] new eyes on things. We appreciate what we’re hearing from her staff – that she’s a listener. She’s someone who’s willing to make some major changes that need to happen,” Jackson said. Jackson helped the RTA evaluate candidates for the job.

“Public transit is an important lifeline for our region, families, workforce and youth. It is the pathway to economic mobility for families and also the foundation of job growth and economic development for our region,” Hankins said, after the selection. “I'm eager to partner with the community to build the efficient, reliable, equitable transit system our city deserves.”

Hankins will take the reins from Wiggins, who led the agency through the pandemic, when ridership sank to historic lows and at least three RTA employees died of COVID. He oversaw the agency’s first major bus system redesign since Hurricane Katrina.

He also faced pushback during his tenure: after Hurricane Ida in 2021, the union called for him to resign amid a dispute about emergency pay for work done during the widespread power grid failure that followed the Category 4 storm.

The leadership transition comes as the RTA seeks to build its first bus rapid transit line, to connect New Orleans East and the west bank to downtown on a single, speedier route.

Earlier this month, New Orleans City Council dealt an early blow to the agency’s plans, delaying a vote to sign off on the RTA’s proposed route before the agency can apply for federal funding to actually build the new line. Council member Freddie King, who represents Algiers, cited concerns about increased traffic over the Crescent City Connection should a lane become dedicated to bus traffic.

A council committee is expected to take up the BRT route proposal again in the coming weeks, according to RTA officials.

Jackson, from RIDE, said she hopes Hankins will help the RTA build out its “big shiny projects” coming down the pipeline, like bus rapid transit and a long-discussed downtown transfer building. But she said the agency also needs to focus on improving the experience of everyday riders – and build trust.

“So that transit riders can trust that a bus is going to show up at a well-lit, sheltered bus stop, at the time it’s supposed to, and get them where they need to go in a timely fashion,” Jackson said. “Right now, that feeling does not exist.”

Carly Berlin is the New Orleans Reporter for WWNO and WRKF. She focuses on housing, transportation, and city government. Previously, she was the Gulf Coast Correspondent for Southerly, where her work focused on disaster recovery across south Louisiana during two record-breaking hurricane seasons. Much of that reporting centered on the aftermath of Hurricanes Laura and Delta in Lake Charles, and was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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