It’s the $9.3 billion question: how to pay to completely rebuild New Orleans’ crumbling neighborhood streets.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu is turning that question over to a 13-member panel charged with coming up with ways to pay for the massive backlog of work needed on what are known as interior streets, meaning those running between major thoroughfares.
The group, known as the Fix My Streets Financing Working Group, includes engineers, City Council members, finance and transportation professionals and leaders of an activist group for which it is named. The group is charged with delving into the funding and prioritization of road construction in the city.
“The city is wonderful,” said Norma Jean Mattei, chairwoman of the task force and president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers. “The infrastructure is not so wonderful.”
Complaints about the state of the city’s streets have been rising in recent years. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, about one-third of city streets were rated in fair or worse condition, and even more are in worse condition today, the Mayor’s Office said.
While Landrieu touted progress that has been made since he took office, he also pointed Monday to the massive cost of properly fixing the streets and said he empathized with frustrations of residents — including those who founded the “Fix My Streets” campaign for which the group is named.
Landrieu said, “Many people feel like because their streets aren’t getting done, progress isn’t being made.”
What funding solutions the group might come up with are unclear.
In announcing the group, Landrieu repeatedly mentioned searching for untapped local, state and federal funding sources, though he did not identify any that he thought the city had not yet tapped.
The administration’s roadwork efforts have been bolstered by federal money through various programs aimed at repairing damage from Katrina, and it is negotiating with FEMA for another $1 billion for the effort.
Landrieu also is preparing to ask voters to renew a tax to help fund up to $100 million in street repairs over the next several years.
Less traditional options also could be in play.
An effort to boost funding for the city’s recreation programs several years ago resulted in the creation of the public-private New Orleans Recreation Development Commission and an affiliated foundation, which focuses on raising funds. Asked whether that could be a potential model, Landrieu said, “I think everything is on the table at this time.”
The administration’s goal is to have preliminary recommendations in place in time to draft bills for this spring’s legislative session, though a final report might not be finished until later next year.
The group’s work is expected to include both short-term and longer-term suggestions, and many involved in the task force described fixing the streets as a decadeslong process.
“It might be another 20 years before our children can look back and say, ‘Thank you for taking this first step,’ ” Fix My Streets founder Robert Lupo said.
A long-term approach has driven at least some of the city’s thinking on road repairs so far. The $9.3 billion estimate for the entire city — based on the figure of $7 million to pave each mile of the city’s minor streets — assumes the streets will be completely reconstructed, not just patched. That approach is more expensive but is expected to lead to fewer problems in the future.
“This is about attacking the issue not just for the short term but coming up with a long-term infrastructure program,” Councilman Jared Brossett said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.