Boil water flooding

Advocate photo by Chris Granger -- A water main break in the Freret area has led to street flooding and a boil water advisory on Friday morning, May 3, 2019. 

Teddy Roosevelt was president. The Model-T was about to transform streets across America.

And the city of New Orleans laid down a 30-inch water main along Freret Street.

It’s the same pipe that burst and flooded Uptown streets on Friday, forced schools to close and caused a boil-water advisory to be issued.

What’s wrong with this particular stroll down memory lane?

The most convenient culprit is the Sewerage & Water Board, the agency that’s struggling to deal with the problems of drainage as well as leaky pipes. There are plenty of elected officials ready to point their fingers.

What’s more difficult is getting to an agreement that will change things for the better. And the underlying dilemma — infrastructure long past its prime — is a challenge confronting communities across Louisiana.

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Leaky pipes are an especially acute burden in New Orleans. A huge percentage of the water that goes into the city’s system dribbles out, an expensive day-to-day crisis that’s become too familiar to be noticed.

But while the S&WB is one of the most prominently beleaguered institutions in this struggle, it’s not as if the politically embattled agency is alone. New Orleans is a city with century-old pipes, but there are lots of places where infrastructure of all sorts is breaking down.

More and more small towns across Louisiana are being run by financial overseers from state government. Those communities have old pipes — although maybe from Dwight Eisenhower’s day rather than Teddy’s — but they’re still not properly maintained.

Meanwhile, the potholes and delays that afflict everyday commuters in New Orleans — and to an even worse degree in Baton Rouge — argue that streets need much more attention than they are getting. Last year, Baton Rouge voters approved a half-cent sales tax to address the strained traffic grid. Meanwhile, Louisiana officials are closing bridges in every part of the state almost weekly.

Amid all this, are our leaders responding? Well, there’s a reason there are century-old pipes.

In the small towns now in what is essentially state receivership, the local politicians didn’t want to raise water or sewer rates, or taxes; in some places, the homestead exemption meant that almost every residence paid little in property taxes.

At the state and national level, neglect and delay is a strategy: The state’s gasoline tax hasn’t been raised in more than three decades, when Ronald Reagan was president — and because of inflation, highway repair dollars buy about half the work that they used to. It’s not even clear if a bill to raise revenue to fix things will even get a hearing in the Ways and Means Committee of the current legislative session in Baton Rouge.

At the national level, President Donald Trump hit upon a popular theme of rebuilding America, but like a police jury writ large, it’s difficult to find members of Congress willing to vote for the tax increases to pay for the scale of work needed. The task is particularly hard in Trump’s own party, where voting for tax cuts that add to the federal debt is the policy in good times and hard times alike.

There are many reasons for centenarian pipes, and they don’t reflect well on leadership in our city, state or nation.