New Orleans' ambitious plan to pour billions of dollars into fixing its crumbling streets is already behind schedule before it has really gotten started.
The city had expected to accept bids by the end of July on the first 30 projects part of the massive eight-year, more than $9 billion effort.
But only five of those projects are expected to meet that deadline, with the rest caught up in federal environmental and historic-preservation reviews, Public Works Director Mark Jernigan told a committee looking for permanent revenue streams to fund roadwork in the city.
“I think right now, we’ve got one project in construction in Lakeview, five more that are really close, and the remainder are falling behind that,” Jernigan said Monday.
“We’re not where I thought we’d be at the beginning of the year."
The federal reviews are needed because the work is being funded with Federal Emergency Management Agency money allocated to the city in a settlement for damage to the city’s pipes and streets during Hurricane Katrina.
“The length of the review process was a little longer than we hoped,” Jernigan said.
The initial, $2.5 billion FEMA-funded part of the streets overhaul was announced last year, with officials pledging that at the height of the program, they’d be awarding a new contract every week. But the federal reviews have meant a slow start.
More than $2.5 billion in road, water, sewerage and drainage work is planned in New Orleans …
The evaluations are required for projects paid for with federal funds that could have harmful environmental impacts or that need to be reviewed to ensure they don’t cause damage to historic sites or districts.
Much of New Orleans is in such districts, and Jernigan said the city has revised its schedule to account for the 120 working days needed to conduct the studies.
So far, the city has not been given any indication there will be a problem in winning approval for any of the planned projects, he said.
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Jernigan noted the delays during a meeting of the Fix My Streets Finance Working Group, a task force put together by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in late 2015 to come up with ways to find the nearly $7 billion that will be needed to fully rebuild the rest of New Orleans’ streets after the FEMA-funded projects are finished.
“We’ve got to get confidence built back up and get trust in city government,” said Eric Songy, president of the Bocage Neighborhood Association and a member of the Fix My Streets advocacy campaign that predated the task force. “We’ve got to show that things are getting done and they’re done on time.”
The task force, which has met every few months for the past year and a half, has yet to issue any recommendations. On Monday, its members called for more details on how much funding will be needed, such as how much the city will need to have in the bank when the FEMA money runs out and how officials arrived at their $9 billion-plus overall estimate on the amount of work needed.
Going forward, members said, the group could work in collaboration with the Bureau of Governmental Research, which has issued reports suggesting new funding options for the streets and drainage system.
“We should be able to come to terms with what it takes to make this thing work and then make recommendations to the administration to get it done,” said Freddy Yoder, the retired president and chief operating officer of Durr Heavy Construction and a leader of the Lakeview neighborhood. “In order to do that, we’re going to have to be transparent and show some progress along the way.”