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A conversation with RTA's new CEO on New Orleans public transit next steps, problems to solve

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

Public transportation has undergone some big changes over the last year. In September 2022, the Regional Transit Authority redesigned its bus network. Now the agency is working to secure federal funding for an ambitious new Bus Rapid Transit line. And there’s a new leader in charge: Lona Edwards Hankins took the helm as the agency’s new CEO in March.

WWNO’s New Orleans metro reporter Carly Berlin sat down with Hankins to talk about the road ahead for New Orleans transit. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CARLY BERLIN: You’re almost three months into the top job at the RTA now. Walk us through: What is your vision for the RTA over the next few years?

LONA EDWARDS HANKINS: So, high quality infrastructure, right? Let’s get great shelters on the ground. Let’s build the downtown transit center. Let’s have really safe exchanges at our regional transit hubs so that it’s very pedestrian-safe. Potentially introducing fare-capping so that the folks who are transit-dependent and have income limitation, that they can ride as often as they need for the most affordable rate that they can.

CB: I’ve spent a lot of time over the last year getting on the bus talking to riders, and one of the main concerns I hear over and over again is a breakdown over communication. That can be things like the new app, Le Pass, not always showing that real-time bus tracking, so it’s hard to know when your next bus is getting there. Or the lack of new signs at bus stops for the new routes that we saw get rolled out last fall. What's the RTA doing to address these communication issues for transit riders?

LEH: I’ve created a chief customer service officer. I see that position as being the chief advocate for riders, for making sure they get the right information at the right time. What does a service delay mean? Is that a line delayed by five minutes? Is it delayed by 15 minutes? How do we understand what information a rider really needs, and then (deliver) that information?

As it relates to some of the other things that you brought up – the signage. New signs are going up. Temporary signs are going up right now as we speak. As it relates to the real time tracking with the Le Pass app: any day now. We’re working with the vendor, and any day now we should be rolling out that new technology.

CB: We’ve been covering the plans for the new Bus Rapid Transit project that would connect New Orleans East and the west bank through downtown on one high frequency route. City council gave the green light to the proposed route for that new line back in March. What can listeners expect as the next steps forward on that project at this point?

LEH: I signed our letter to enter into the Federal Transit Administration’s process. The next several phases will be really a more robust engineering phase, a more robust community outreach phase to make sure that we are designing this with all stakeholders at the table — people who ride transit, and people who use cars.

CB: I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what the hopes are for that new kind of service — it’s new, right? We don’t have anything like that in the region, and I think it can be kind of unfamiliar.

LEH: Bus Rapid Transit, typically when it operates its most efficiently, you have a dedicated lane. In so many ways, BRT is a real big solution to – you name the problem, I can give you the solution. Congestion, right? You got five cars. I can put five passengers on one bus and move them quicker and eliminate congestion. It’s greener because I’m not having so much carbon dioxide emissions going in the air. It’s an economic development and mobility because if mom is getting to work on time, she may be seen as a viable employee to give that raise to.

Many employers that are looking to come to a region want to understand, how can we move people to jobs quickly? Many young people — I have a young 21 year old, he’s about to sell his car, because he just no longer wants to own a car — are opting into public transit and being less car-centric.

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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