Reinventing Transit to Build Smart and Resilient Communities

Reinventing Transit to Build Smart and Resilient Communities Image credit: TAM America

TAM America had the privilege of conducting an interview with Lona Edwards Hankins, CEO, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA), and is pleased to share her insights on improving and developing public transit to maximize economic, environmental and social benefits for the community.

Please tell us about your role at the RTA and your unique background in public and private sector that led you to this role?

I am the Chief Executive Officer of the RTA.  In this role I wear many hats – visionary, ambassador, coach, mentor, and on occasion disciplinary.  I was led to this role based on a call to serve New Orleans.  Every job that I have held in both the private and public sector has prepared me for this moment.  In my early years in the private sector, I was fortunate to be able to work in a variety of roles, projects, inspection, maintenance, and cost engineering.  In my public sector role, I learned the importance of community involvement when designing and implementing infrastructure improvements.  I work hard at mastering the art of being a servant leader, for the community that we serve and the community that I am honored to lead.

New Orleans has a historic transit system. How do you plan and implement modernization projects while preserving the city’s rich cultural legacy?

The City of New Orleans has a rich history of public transit – the city's rapid growth, during the late 18th and early 20th centuries, was made possible with a network of streetcar lines and ferry crossings, resulting in the walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods found in the historic urban areas of the city. The best way we can honor this cultural legacy is by providing high-quality transit service and encouraging additional transit-oriented development so that the residents of New Orleans can once again depend on transit in the ways that past generations benefited. Modernization projects that make our transit service faster, more efficient, safer and more accessible are all in line with the historic character of the city.

We’re also proud of our transit history and look for ways to celebrate and tell that story – we threw a block party at our Carrollton Streetcar Barn last year for the 100th anniversary of the Perley A. Thomas Streetcar, and we’re in the early stages of planning exhibits that tell the story of our transit system at key transit facilities. We’re proud of our transit history and the fact that it is a living history – so we’ll continue to look for ways to balance that history with the need to modernize some aspects of our system.

Please share your vision for the RTA. What are some of the key initiatives and projects that will help realize this vision?

My hope that our plateau will be best possible platform for the next generation of transit professionals and riders.  We are guided by our strategic mobility plan as well as our agency priorities: 

  1. We want to build the world-class transit system that New Orleanians so richly deserve. 
  2. Improve regional connection to efficiently move riders between Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes. 
  3. We want to leverage innovation internally and externally to use technology to help improve rider convenience – i.e. fare technology, real-time bus arrivals, and clean-energy options. 
  4. Not only do we want to a truly equitable transit system, we want to make sure that we are leveraging tax-payer dollars to contribute to our local economy through partnerships with minority and other underutilized business, particularly in our capital programs. 
  5. We want to contribute to the workforce development ecosystem to ensure we are doing our part to create economic mobility opportunities for young people. 

In December 2020, the RTA completed its transition from a fully delegated management model to 100% direct-employee public agency. How has this experience transformed the agency?

I believe that it has encouraged staff that have been at the agency for a long time to believe that positive change is possible.  That they are in control, that someone in a different location is no longer making decisions.  It has also taken staff a minute to realize they are empowered, primarily due to the timing, we spent 2021 and 2022 in recovery mode. 2023 was filled with leadership change and re-organization.  I am looking to 2024 as a “believe it” year.  We can control our destiny and build the transit system that our community deserves and needs.

How is the RTA incorporating sustainability and building climate resilience?

The RTA comprehensively acknowledges its role in promoting sustainability and enhancing climate resilience within our environment. Our agency is undertaking numerous initiatives as part of both our short and long-term planning:

Zero Emission Resilient Fleet Project – A perfect example of how we’re leveraging more than $400M in federal funding we’ve secured, this $71M initiative aims to expedite RTA's shift towards zero emissions, incorporating 20 battery-electric vehicles. Supported by a robust 5MW solar-powered microgrid, the system ensures the ability to charge vehicles off-grid – even during significant power disruption events. The project, already fully funded, is scheduled to commence its design phase in late 2024.

Downtown Transit Center – The $33M Downtown Transit Center Project is poised to become a premier hub that facilitates seamless transfers between buses, streetcars, and our upcoming Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. Additionally, it will serve as an exemplar of resilient infrastructure, designed to operate seamlessly during power disruptions, supporting RTA's transition to a zero-emission fleet. With full funding secured, the project is set to commence its design phase in late summer this year.

Also: We are working to add nearly 25 shelters over the next year to provide protection from heat and other weather events. RTA is committing $500,000 annually to expanding and improving bus shelters, and earlier, in 2023, helped secure a $100,000 grant with the Committee for a Better New Orleans to create more climate-resilient shelters. We’ve already added 11 new shelters in 2024, including four in one week.

What is your message for transit agencies seeking to develop public transport as the backbone of multi-modal transportation in smart cities?

Be patient – develop a broad coalition of partners and look for incremental wins. Cities in the United States face a unique, deeply imbedded car culture compared to other countries that kept a more balanced approach to transportation during the past 60 years. Transportation, and transit specifically, is critical infrastructure that is essential to getting people to work, school, doctor’s appointments, etc., but often runs under the radar when civic and business leaders discuss issues of economy development, workforce development, social and environmental justice, health outcomes, etc.

Transforming culture requires building coalitions of interest to restore public transportation to being that backbone once again. Working together, find some meaningful wins that improve transit and the perception of transit while developing the larger investments that will make a significant impact. Lastly, look for new and emerging technologies that can help bridge that gap, like integrated apps to serve multiple modes and micro-transit or on-demand services.