Q&A with Dick Alexander: A New Private Sector Path for Mass Transit in New Orleans
Decator, New Orleans. Photo by

Decatur Street, New Orleans. Photo by Matt Wetta.

This interview is part of a bi-weekly series with sustainable transportation advocates, planners, engineers, journalists, sociologists, and other experts working to shed light on best practices and solutions from across the globe. We welcome your suggestions for future Q&As.

Veolia Transportation is a $48 billion private company that works in the United States, Canada and Europe to implement transportation solutions for cities. Its programs include private services, like shuttle, sedan and taxi services, to traditional public transit, like bus, rail and paratransit. In some cases, Veolia runs and manages the entire public transit system or, in other cases, just a component of the system. For these cases, mostly in European cities, where Veolia owns the whole system, the company is managing “operations, safety, maintenance, customer care, routes and schedules, capital planning, budgeting, employee salaries & benefits, human resources, marketing, ridership growth, grant administration, as well as all the other typical functions of a transit authority.”

In New Orleans, Veolia has opted to run the entire city’s public transportation system. The coastal city, still wrenching from issues of social and environmental justice, urban poverty and the movement of 800,000 thousand people from their original homes, is rebuilding after one of the most devastating storms in U.S. history, Hurricane Katrina.  In many ways the storm has given rise to a new vision and rebirth for the region of which public transportation is a key component.

The New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) approved in July 2009 a unique contract with Veolia. According to the press release, “the historic agreement is based on an ambitious, phased plan to improve public transportation and mobility in New Orleans over the next ten years, as a cornerstone of the city’s continuing renewal following Hurricane Katrina.” This is the first “delegate management” program in the U.S. in which Veolia is assuming all the functions and operations including commercial risks, legal and financial components, including insurance. We interviewed Senior Vice President of Business Development Dick Alexander to learn more about this model. Alexander works to create proposals for Veolia and build partnerships.

The New Orleans RTA operates multiple modes of transit, including 93 buses, paratransit vehicles, neighborhood circulators, 10 circulator vans, and 66 New Orleans Streetcars. The systems transports more than 11.5 million passengers per year and 31,500 passengers per day.

Can you give me some background as to why you chose to own and operate public transportation in New Orleans?

Veolia Transportation is part of Veolia Transport, a subsidiary of Veolia Environnement. Veolia Transport operates in 28 countries. We provide passenger transportation for cities and counties under a contract basis. A city or county would contract with us to provide all of the transportation in a city—basically whatever it takes to operate a public transit system. In the U.S., that’s typically in the form of operations and maintenance. In San Diego, for example, we operate half of the bus system. The city provides the buses but we provide the drivers, management and run the services. We do that in about 120 locations in the U.S. and establish a price per hour for the service we provide.

In Europe, where Veolia does most of its work, it’s a slightly different model. A public policy board develops the goals of the system and then you have the implementers of that policy, which usually involves the private sector. In France, everyone below the board level is charged with implementation, marketing, planning, grant work—every aspect of creating a public transportation program. We’ve started introducing this system in the U.S. to create better systems. We think this model is superior because you allow the public policy people to focus on bigger issues and the private sector focuses on whatever the issues are from changing the modal split to a  reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, etc.

New Orleans is the first example of the private sector run model in the U.S.

What brought you to New Orleans? Weren’t you worried about the risks associated with a city undergoing so many changes?

New Orleans was unique because the post-Katrina the fleet wasn’t good. A lot of talent had left New Orleans. Facilities were still housed in trailers and there weren’t the right resources given the environment. So we introduced the Delegate Management model. We brought our resources to the city because any transit system, whether 30 or 1,000 buses, need the same thing: technology, good management, etc.

We felt we could bring the needed expertise to the table given the situation. And set out to jump start the system in New Orleans and get it back to what it was. At one point, New Orleans supported one one of the most productive systems in the country.

What made it so productive?

Ridership was high and the system was well used. There’s pretty good density in the wards and the streetcar generated a lot of ridership. But Katrina destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward and pushed people out of the urban core.

A lot of it was how to get the system back to being a good functioning system that could be part of the growth and rebuilding of New Orleans.  We saw it as opportunity that in the long run is important for the industry. It allowed us to put our intellectual stamp on the issue so we saw it as less of a risk and more an opportunity. It has turned out that way.

New Orleans after the storm in the spring of 2006. Photo by Jonna McKone

New Orleans after the storm in the spring of 2006. Photo by Jonna McKone

So how exactly does it work? What is your relationship with the RTA?

RTA functions as the board, develops policy, direction and where they want to see the system go.  RTA is the legal entity that oversees the delivery of the public transit system in New Orleans and Veolia gets paid on costs per hour. We advise RTA but they ultimately make the decisions about the system, not us. But we make hiring and firing decisions, we put in the infrastructure and develop the proprietary programs, etc.

So what are you looking to accomplish in New Orleans in the next ten years?

We received a stimulus to expand New Orleans’ streetcar. [A $45 million TIGER grant from U.S. Department of Transportation.] We are also working on rebranding, getting new buses on the street as well as good fiscal management.

What has the rebranding entailed?

This is a rebirth of the system and we wanted to be able to provide a new image for the RTA. We looked historically at how they branded the system. We wanted it to be customer-focused. For example, we implemented a customer comment modular. Part of the branding was creating a logo image and look, which involved new timetables, signs and colors while keeping a tie to the history and presenting something new.

I read that bus rapid transit (BRT) is in the works for New Orleans—is this the case?

We bought some articulated buses because there are a few crowded lines. But our focus for now is expanding the streetcar system. BRT is a bit far off. We currently run normal bus routes and started Lil’ Easy, a demand-based service. [Lil’ Easy runs in the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview and Gentilly.] After New Orleans, there were devastated neighborhoods without enough people to ride the buses, but without transit no one would move back there.  It was a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, so we came up with a cost-effective solution that connects people to bus routes in the city. It’s still in service, but has been modified since it started.

We also wanted to create forward momentum in our work in New Orleans so we tried to get something off the ground right away.

Can you talk a bit more about streetcars in New Orleans? How do they work?

The streetcars are a historic system in New Orleans. In the city we have the St. Charles Street Line that runs from the downtown central business district to a few neighborhoods. The Canal Street Streetcar is from about six years ago and goes from downtown through a major corridor to Mid-City. The Riverfront Line goes from the Convention Center to the French Quarter.

We proposed adding three more lines to connect Canal Street to Union Station (where regional buses and Amtrak come in) and what will be a future transit hub for RTA. We also would like to connect the central business district to the streetcar network on Canal Street as well as connect the convention center to hotels. The system mostly serves residents and provides access to jobs.

Have you faced any barriers to your work in the city?

It has been a very strong partnership. The Mayor’s Office has been behind it all of the way.  We have had no major roadblocks—the board is supportive and New Orleans is very interested in rebuilding its transit system.

What would you say are the biggest needs in the city regarding transportation?

I would say more of it. For public transit to work well it has to have enough mass to make it convenient. This includes frequency and capacity. Running a bus every hour into a remote part of an area will not attract people. The streetcar is so popular is because it comes every 10 to 12 minutes. I think that’s why New Orleans transit was well used in the past—because it was reliable and frequent.

What about all the changes in the city? Does that make it hard to design effective transit? Have residential patterns shifted a lot in the city?

I think there’s a lot of change here. We work with a local consultant that does a lot of demographic work and shows us where people are and are moving to. A lot of what we’re working on now is the route structure in the “new New Orleans.”

Also, the Lower Ninth Ward is still totally leveled so we’ll see more changes there. And we’re seeing a lot of young people moving into New Orleans that weren’t there before.

New Orleans' streetcar. Photo by Jason Layne.

New Orleans streetcar. Photo by Jason Layne.

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