New Orleans’ massive campaign of FEMA-funded roadwork got off to a slow start in 2017, but officials are aiming to break ground on dozens of projects in 2018.
The $2.4 billion, multi-year road program was supposed to be well underway by now but got hung up by required regulatory approvals.
However, a flurry of activity — including major reconstruction on some streets — is expected in the new year. Work is expected to begin on more than $427 million worth of projects over the next 12 months.
“People are really going to notice and see work all across the city,” said Sarah McLaughlin Porteous, a spokeswoman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office.
The huge slate of roadwork is the result of a 2015 settlement between the city and FEMA over the extent of damage from Hurricane Katrina to the Sewerage & Water Board’s underground pipes and the city roads above them.
In all, the city plans to begin 55 projects in 2018, including 17 miles worth of completely rebuilt roadways. Another 97 miles will undergo major repairs, including curb-to-curb repaving. Damaged portions of another 23 miles of streets will be replaced and resurfaced. Other streets will see minor repairs as well.
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Those projects will be spread throughout the city in an effort to avoid creating too much construction in any one area.
“We can’t just throw all this under construction at once because the city has to continue to function,” Porteous said.
When the roadwork plan was initially proposed, the schedule called for launching 30 projects in 2017. So far, however, work has begun on only four of them, in Lakeview, the Lower 9th Ward, New Orleans East and Village de l’Est.
Neither the city nor FEMA had expected environmental and historic preservation reviews that are required when working with federal money to take as long as they did, Porteous said. The historic reviews are required for any work with federal money in historic districts, which cover about half the 200 projects that are part of the roadwork plan, she said.
The city now has begun building time for the extra vetting, which takes 120 working days to complete, into projects' timelines, Porteous said.
“We’re much more able to predict what the schedules are,” she said.
Work is expected to begin on six projects, totaling about $25.7 million, in the first 90 days of 2018, she said.
While the work that has already begun has consisted largely of repairs to minor streets, the coming year will see the city start to tackle larger and more complicated projects.
Those involve the full reconstruction of some streets from the bottom up, including fixes to utility lines. They require more complicated and time-consuming design and engineering work and so were not scheduled as part of the first wave of projects, Porteous said.
Updates on the work can be found at roadwork.nola.gov. People with questions about the projects can also email the city at email@example.com or call the construction hotline at (504) 658-7623. The city also plans to hold neighborhood meetings before each project begins.
Howeveer, uncertainty remains about some elements of the roadwork program.
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For one thing, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, issued a report this year questioning the entire settlement between the city and the agency. The report said that FEMA should take back $2 billion of the money slated for repairs because the city’s roads and underground pipes were already in a decrepit state before Katrina.
FEMA has rejected that argument, and officials in President Donald Trump’s administration and Congress have argued the city should keep the money, making it unlikely at this point that there would be an attempt to make the city return it.
In addition, the city still has not developed a plan for how it will pay for roadwork once the FEMA money runs out.
The settlement represents less than a third of the $9 billion that city officials have estimated it would cost to dig up and rebuild every street in the city, and estimates suggest that tens of millions more a year are needed for minor repairs.
Landrieu set up a task force, known as the Fix My Streets Financing Working Group, to come up with a sustainable funding source for the work in late 2015. But that group never settled on a recommendation and hasn’t met since this summer.
As a result, whether the city will be able to continue its ambitious roadwork program after the FEMA money runs out about 2024 remains an open question — one that incoming Mayor LaToya Cantrell will have to grapple with.