At $9 billion and rising, the estimated cost of fixing New Orleans’ streets dwarfs even the big settlement between the city and the federal government on restoration of storm damage.
That’s why it’s good to have a study commission look at the big picture. It’s not just another politically palatable response to a costly problem.
Even Einsteins of paving can’t magically raise the money that rebuilds roads and the sewer and drainage lines under them. Those costs, estimated by the city today at $425,000 for each city block, eclipse the money available now.
Where is the rest of this new money to come from? That’s going to be interesting reading.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s newest brain trust will have to come up with something creative in the short term. He gave the panel of experts a deadline of February, before the city must send its package of bills to Baton Rouge for the 2016 session of the Legislature. A final report, though, from the 13 members will take longer.
“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.”
Even with the profound financial challenges, the Landrieu administration is not necessarily shuffling a problem off with this new group.
For one thing, it is targeted on the interior streets, those running between major thoroughfares and all too often pitted with potholes reminiscent of shellholes on battlefields. Other, major thoroughfares might have alternative sources of funding; financing of interior streets is going to be typically a city responsibility.
The mayor also is taking a wise approach to the problem — not just patching holes but rebuilding streets so that long-term the city doesn’t have as big a maintenance challenge in the future. That costs more in the short run but saves in years to come.
The administration has a good story to tell, especially compared with the chaos of the Ray Nagin administration it inherited in 2010. Fixing roads and potholes has been a priority and those efforts help, but the mayor acknowledges it’s not fast enough progress for the city’s neighborhoods.
The administration’s road work has been bolstered by federal money through various programs aimed at repairing damage from Hurricane Katrina, and another $1.2 billion is coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The city deserves good marks for cobbling together different funding sources to pay for specific projects, creatively getting around federal rules or other restrictions on use of various pots of money.
Still, it’s not enough. Landrieu is preparing to ask voters to renew a tax to help fund up to $100 million in street repairs over the next several years. That’s serious money, but even as a renewal it has to be sold to voters.
The bright lights on the Fixing My Streets Financing Working Group might surprise us with some of their recommendations. We hope so, but the reality as we see it now is that state government is hobbled for cash right now — Landrieu, a former legislator and lieutenant governor, knows that as well as anybody. So we don’t see much in the way of short-term relief in the 2016 Legislature.
Longer term, we hope that the new governor and Legislature will help with the complicated financial issues between the city and the state. But that’s a long-term challenge that’s unlikely to be addressed by the time the “working group” does its final report.
Fix My Streets is a battle cry in many neighborhoods, and it’s a job that has to be done. Like all big jobs, financing is going to be the issue.