With the growth and changes, community involvement has been key. When Veolia first came on board, Augustine says one of the first things they did was to go down to one of the most devastated areas back in the lower 9th ward to meet with the community. “One of the things we heard was that they did not want to be disconnected from the rest of the community,” he says.
“We had to become part of them,” Augustine explains. “When I would go out to the community, I would say we suffered just as much as you suffered because we lost everything also. And I apologized for not having from the beginning, the services that they desperately needed because we didn’t have the assets and to make them aware of the process it took for us to get the financing in place to get the equipment in place; it was going to take some time.”
Keeping the community involved, aware of the process, in the interim the RTA worked at being creative, listened and put out some service with anything they could get their hands on, Augustine says.
“We created what was called The Lil’ Easy, a specially designed service made up to serve the most devastated areas of the city.” He explains, “The Lower 9th ward was one of the most heavily damaged areas of the city. Pre-Katrina, they had five major bus routes.
“When we took over, we only had one partial line.” The area also had gone from more than 27,000 households to under 1,000. Augustine says, “You couldn’t put that amount of service out there because you didn’t have the demand or the population, but at the same token, the people that were there had a culture of having public transportation available to them and it wasn’t there anymore.”
They designed a neighborhood circular service that was on call and on demand. “We granted them the naming rights and the branding rights, we worked with the communities out there and it became their service, their system, and they took ownership of it.
“It was very successful because one of the best things we heard when we rolled out the service on the first day was one resident that said we saved her $17.25 a day and that’s real money.” Augustine explains that she had to take a taxi cab to and from her place of employment because she couldn’t get there on public transportation.
“I think that is one of the most important things that we have been able to achieve is our ability to go out in to the community and be able to listen and to fulfill the desires of the community.”
Another example he gives is access – or not – to grocery stores. Post Katrina, there weren’t any grocery stores in the area, then finally one opened up. “To get to the grocery store on public transportation, it would take you 240 minutes to get from a certain location in the Lower 9th ward to a grocery store.” He continues, “Today, that same trip is like 15 minutes. So we enhance the quality of life.”
Summarizing the experience Augustine says, “When you have these neighborhood advisory committees, these neighborhood groups that invite you in to their homes, it’s a wonderful thing.”
He explains, “One of the things that we also did was as a public-private venture, we’re not a city agency, per se, we’re technically a subdivision of the state of Louisiana. The thing that we were able to do was to listen to these communities, we weren’t hearing just transportation needs; we were hearing other needs.
“We were able to then take those needs that we heard and transfer them over to appropriate city departments so the neighborhood had the opportunity to have a voice not only in transit, but any issues impacting their community that we were able to relay back to the appropriate city department. We had that responsibility.
“We helped them by becoming a mouthpiece and champion for some of their needs in some cases the community felt weren’t being heard.” He stresses, “So that public outreach program was a great thing.”
Expo Comes to New Orleans
The transit world is coming to New Orleans for the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA’s) Expo in October and Augustine says they will all see that those at the RTA love what they do and the attendees are going to have a magnificent time to enjoy the beauty and charm of the city.