Work to reconstruct cratered, cracked and crumbling neighborhood streets throughout New Orleans — a goal long sought by residents and often promised by officials — is set to begin before long in a big way.
With $1.2 billion in newly committed FEMA money in hand, city and Sewerage & Water Board officials are preparing to embark on a major effort to rebuild the city’s minor streets and the pipes that run beneath them, a process that is expected to take at least a half-dozen years.
When completed, completely new roadways will replace hundreds of miles of streets that haven’t seen major repairs since before Hurricane Katrina.
Exactly what streets will be targeted and when is expected to be hammered out in the coming months in a process city officials have described as a singular chance to get a jump on remaking the city’s infrastructure.
“This is a major opportunity for an American city to upgrade its infrastructure. There’s a whole lot of cities in this state and this country that are envious today,” said Cedric Grant, executive director of the S&WB and Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s point man on all infrastructure projects.
The settlement with FEMA has been in the works since Landrieu first took office, when the administration sought a declaration that the city’s entire water, drainage and sewerage system had been damaged so badly by the storm that it would need to be repaired. Hundreds of negotiating sessions led FEMA to provide about $800 million for repairs in recent years and another $1.2 billion in a settlement announced last week.
That money, combined with previous FEMA funding since Katrina and the revenue from a S&WB rate increase several years ago, is expected to fund about a third of the $9.3 billion in work that officials estimate it would take to completely rebuild all of the city’s street.
While touted mainly for the road repairs that residents have been crying out for, the FEMA funding is actually aimed mainly at fixing the pipes beneath the streets. The sewer and water systems were heavily damaged during Katrina when the weight of floodwaters that inundated the city damaged all the underground systems.
Because getting to those pipes means first tearing up and then replacing the streets above them, city officials are using the funding as an opportunity to completely rebuild the roads from the bottom up.
Repairs from the bottom up
For the city and the S&WB, the money is a chance to kill three birds with one stone: repair the streets, fix the pipes damaged by the flood and make significant repairs to a sewer system that remains under a federal consent decree from the late 1990s because of sewage that leaked into Lake Pontchartrain.
“We’re going to try our best to make comprehensive repairs from the bottom up, so when we’re done, we’re done,” Grant said.
Grant estimated that between 50 and 100 miles of streets can be rebuilt each year, similar to the speed at which work is now occurring.
The difference is where those roads will be. The bulk of the roadwork that has occurred over the past 10 years has focused on major roadways and arterials through projects such as the Submerged Roads program and Paths to Progress.
By contrast, the upcoming work will focus on so-called “interior streets,” the minor roads that run through neighborhoods and make up most of the city’s street grid. The vast majority of the streets that will be rebuilt with the new FEMA settlement have not seen major repairs since before Katrina, Grant said.
Because city officials had been anticipating some sort of deal for federal recovery agency, few of the streets have been repaved in recent years, and there should be few, if any, cases where newly laid asphalt is torn up as part of the coming work, Grant said.
The pace of roadwork is constrained by two factors: money and manpower. While the just-announced settlement essentially resolves the issue of funding for the near future, the speed at which the work is completed is likely to be bottlenecked by the capacity of the local construction industry, Grant said.
“There’s only so much work you can put out there that people can get done in a certain amount of time,” he said.
Overall, the work is expected to take between six and eight years. A schedule should be announced in the coming months.
A scientific study
The city is finalizing an analysis of road conditions throughout New Orleans based on data collected since July by vehicles with ground-penetrating radar and other high-tech equipment. That report will provide an updated view of the conditions both in and under the roadways.
Officials will then use that information to determine where conditions are the worst in an effort to prioritize the projects. Conditions of both the roads and the pipes will be considered, Grant said.
“I’ve never found anybody that hasn’t told me their street was the worst,” he said. “Now I’m going to have a scientific study to validate (those conditions) for everybody.”
Finally, the city will also look at what other construction is going on nearby to ensure the new work doesn’t cut off neighborhoods or create undue problems. For example, Grant said, it wouldn’t make sense to tear up roads near the various Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control drainage projects Uptown until that work is completed.
“It’s going to be a complicated dance for the next few years,” he said.
The result will be a master plan — to be presented to FEMA — laying out how the city plans to spend the money.
With no bedrock on which to build streets, road maintenance is a particular problem in New Orleans because the unstable soil shifts, leading to cracks and craters. The extreme heat of summers and the possibility of freezes in winter further complicate the process of constructing durable roadways.
The city is looking into various techniques and materials that could increase the durability of the roadways and help counteract the effects of subsidence, with a goal of giving the streets a 30-year lifespan, Grant said.
“We’re coming up with design standards that are as strong as we can for the environment in which we live,” he said.
Meanwhile, efforts such as the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan are aimed at stabilizing the water table beneath the city and potentially slowing the pace and minimizing the scale of subsidence.
That plan is also designed to mitigate the effects of pumping water out of the city, which can further destabilize the soil as it sucks water out of it.
During a recent project on St. Bernard Avenue, workers discovered areas beneath the street where 10 feet of earth “was just gone,” something Grant said was likely due to the effects of the pumps that drain stormwater from the city.
Looking at options
The FEMA money comes in addition to other road projects the city is undertaking, including up to $100 million in work in the next several years that could be funded through a bond issue that will be on the April ballot. The work done with those bonds would not overlap with the projects to be paid for with the settlement, Grant said.
Receipt of the FEMA money will give the city some breathing room as it attempts to come up with a longer-term plan for funding the rest of the needed road reconstructions. Landrieu recently appointed a task force to study the issue of where to find the money; he said every option is on the table.
One option the group might look at is dedicated taxing districts to raise money that could be used only for roadwork. Grant also floated the idea of a public-private partnership that could infuse money into the system. However, he acknowledged there are few real models for how that might work for a municipal road system — as opposed to a highway system, where a private firm can pay for improvements and maintenance in exchange for the right to collect tolls.
While the major road reconstructions are underway, the Department of Public Works will continue with minor street repairs and efforts to fix potholes. That process got a boost in the budget passed by the City Council early this month, but the money still is not enough to keep up with the demand for work.
“There are serious maintenance needs in the system,” Grant said. “We have $5.5 million in this last budget, and we could spend $20 million or $30 million.”
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