From Uptown to New Orleans East, from the river to the lake, the inescapable sights and sounds of roadwork are everywhere in New Orleans.
Although the construction is badly needed in a city with numerous bone-rattling and crumbling roadways, much of it is happening at once, creating traffic headaches and delays for drivers stuck in the seemingly perpetual construction zones.
City officials have this message for frustrated motorists: It’ll only get worse before it gets better.
“This is not going away next year,” said Lt. Col. Mark Jernigan, director of the city’s Department of Public Works.
The main contributors to the street-clogging work are hurricane-recovery road projects worth more than $400 million and the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project. Both are scheduled to wrap up in 2018.
Helping to add to the congestion is work on the St. Charles streetcar line and various “streetscape” projects designed to beautify some thoroughfares.
The FEMA-funded recovery roadwork, now in its second phase, will continue across the city for the next four years and is expected to cost about $280 million, Jernigan said.
Before the storm, the city might have spent between $10 million and $20 million a year on road repairs.
“This is a once-in-a-generation type of program,” Jernigan said of the infusion of money and myriad projects happening in rapid succession. “It’s going to be the new normal for at least a couple years.”
The construction bonanza began in earnest in 2008, when about $55 million of emergency roadwork was completed, mainly on major roads that were damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
Since 2010, the Landrieu administration has met with FEMA more than 600 times to petition it to pump additional dollars into the city so that more than just major arteries can see post-Katrina repairs completed, Jernigan said.
Forty projects are set to be completed or started this year, with another 40 projects scheduled every year until 2018, touching virtually every neighborhood in New Orleans.
The goal of the work is to repair what was damaged in the storm’s aftermath, meaning that while one block of a street might be simply resurfaced, the next block might be totally redone, with subsurface drainage and a new roadway, Jernigan said.
Perhaps causing the work to take a little longer than it normally might is a new effort by the city to coordinate repairs with the Sewerage & Water Board.
But Jernigan said any delays caused by trying to get the city and the S&WB on the same page are meant to save money and to prevent one agency’s crew from coming back and tearing up another’s work shortly after it is done, a longtime source of frustration for New Orleanians.
“We’re trying to take a little extra time on the front end to make sure things are coordinated,” he said. “Every block is a little different. It’s a block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood effort.”
Work has begun this summer in Venetian Isles, parts of Uptown and the Holy Cross neighborhood.
By the end of the year, work is expected to begin in St. Claude, the Lower 9th Ward, Little Woods and Pontchartrain Park, Jernigan said.
Meanwhile, Paths to Progress, a multiyear, metrowide program administered by the state and federal governments, has seen $60 million of work done so far on select major roads in New Orleans. That work continues in various neighborhoods and is expected to be done in March 2015, said Chincie Mouton, a Paths to Progress spokeswoman.
If the hurricane-recovery road projects were not enough, the city also will see work begin by the end of this year on the Lafitte Greenway, a 2.6-mile parkway from the edge of the French Quarter to near City Park, plus streetscaping projects near the new VA hospital and University Medical Center rising in Mid-City between Tulane Avenue and Canal Street, in the Michoud area of New Orleans East, and on St. Bernard Avenue between Filmore Avenue and Robert E. Lee Boulevard.
A major streetscape project that is certain to continue to disrupt traffic for some time is on Tulane Avenue near the new hospitals. The Regional Planning Commission will spend $11 million during the next two years to reduce the six-lane road to four lanes by increasing the width of the neutral ground and allowing for left turns, which now are prohibited at most corners.
There also will be bicycle lanes and landscaping once the work is done on Tulane between South Claiborne and South Carrollton avenues.
Meanwhile, in the Uptown area, motorists are being detoured on major roads thanks to the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project — better known as SELA — work that has forced lane shifts on South Claiborne Avenue near South Carrollton Avenue and on parts of Jefferson Avenue and Napoleon Avenue, which has been reduced to one lane for much of its length.
The $1 billion SELA project, administered by the Army Corps of Engineers and the S&WB, is designed to improve drainage and reduce the risk of flooding. It was started before Hurricane Katrina.
One area in which drivers can expect some relief soon will be along the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, said Patrice Bell Mercadel, an RTA spokeswoman.
Work that has closed intersections for years is expected to finish by June, reducing some travel delays, she said.
Even after the hurricane-recovery projects wrap up, many hundreds of millions of dollars of work still will be necessary to repair existing or new problems with the city’s 1,652 miles of streets. The city estimates, in fact, that to reconstruct every street in the city, officials would be looking at a $9.9 billion bill.
The Department of Public Works director said that while the main focus will be on the recovery projects until 2018, the time has come to begin looking at regular street maintenance once that project wraps up and figuring out what future work will need to be paid for with bonds.
“From a planning perspective, this is the right time to start looking and having that discussion,” Jernigan said. “The reality is this program ... (is) not going to fix everything.”
Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.