Alexandria and New Orleans are about 1,100 miles apart. Last Friday morning that distance shrank to the length of six DASH buses.
The Alexandria Transit Company donated buses to the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority to help in the re-establishment of a transit system in the city, which was battered by Hurricane Katrina. The transit company was only the second transportation company in the nation to offer buses. A transit company in Detroit also donated 32 buses.
"We can't tell you how much we appreciate this. We are so grateful that you have come to our aide," said Gerald Robichaux, deputy general manager of operations for the Regional Transit Authority of New Orleans. Robichaux accepted the titles to the six buses from Alexandria Vice Mayor Redella "Del" Pepper and Alexandria Transit Company's general manager Sandy Modell.
"As we watched the devastation we could hardly believe what we were seeing. Those of us in government know just how hard it is to rebuild an entire superstructure of a city and its transportation system," Pepper said.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority had 372 fixed route buses. After the storm there were only 176, Robichaux said.
"Everything on the first floor of our main administration building had about six to eight feet of water. We still don't have any electricity in that building," Robichaux said.
"It has not been cleared to be reoccupied and I don't think that it will be. The mold has taken over. We had damage to both the roof and the bottom of the building. It will probably have to be demolished," he said.
Robichaux said they hope to soon reopen their operating facility.
"We have 400 of our people back at work. They are returning as we rebuild service," Robichaux said.
PRIOR TO KATRINA, New Orleans Transit Authority employed 823 drivers. Robichaux said they are down to 410 and there is little money to pay them.
"We are bringing them back as we get more equipment. However, some have permanently left the area," he said.
Administrative offices for the Transit Authority are now leasing space in a former Piggly Wiggly Supermarket in New Orleans.
"We have to account for every penny," Robichaux said.
With DASH's six buses and the 32 from Detroit, New Orleans Regional Transit Authority, will be back up to approximately 200 operating buses. But, there still remains a major shortage in a city that so heavily relies on public transportation.
New Orleans made their request at a good time; each of the buses being donated were scheduled for auctioned.
"We could have donated another eight buses but they were already turned over to the auction prior to New Orleans' request," Modell said.
Each of the six donated vehicles has logged approximately 400,000 miles, but the power train in each has been rebuilt and the interiors refurbished. "Buses normally have a life span of about 12 years. These buses all came on line in 1991," Modell said.
Getting the buses back to New Orleans is the responsibility of 36-year bus service veteran Hillary Moore and his crew of five drivers. "I'm the highest ranking person in seniority but everybody takes part in the decision making," Moore said. "The more in on the process the less likely of a bad decision being made."
The drivers estimated it would take two or three days to get the convoy back to New Orleans.
Modell and Pepper said donating the buses was one decision that required no deliberation by either Alexandria Transit Company or City Council.
"The individuals impacted by the hurricanes have always been in our thoughts and prayers," Modell said. "When DASH and the city saw this opportunity to help the residents of New Orleans we knew it was the right thing to do."