In 2016, New Orleans was on the cusp of the largest and most ambitious roadwork program in the city’s history.
With $2.4 billion in the bank, mainly from a settlement with FEMA to fix Katrina-damaged streets and the pipes that lie beneath them, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and other city officials promised a massive spate of construction that could completely remake almost a third of the city’s famously treacherous roadways.
But two years later, the project has barely gotten off the ground. Only about a fifth of the projects that were supposed to have started by now are actually underway. And officials in Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration said they found only about 1 percent of the money available to the city had been spent by the time they took office in early May.
“It’s a fact. You can’t make it up. Why would we want to?” Cantrell said during an editorial board meeting with The New Orleans Advocate last week.
The roadwork program has been beset by delays since its early days, but Cantrell said it was a surprise to see how slowly it had moved forward. She said she discovered there were numerous roadwork and stormwater mitigation projects that were ready to go but had not been authorized.
“I really can’t give you a reason why it wasn’t moving,” Cantrell said.
Landrieu could not be reached for comment on the pace of the work under his administration.
Cantrell and her infrastructure chief, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Ramsey Green, said they are working on jump-starting the program and have already authorized $20 million in street projects and another $28 million in stormwater projects in the administration’s first two months.
But additional challenges remain in meeting federal requirements and in getting the Department of Public Works and the Sewerage & Water Board to work together on the massive programs.
The work, formally known as the Joint Infrastructure Program, is a collection of projects — largely funded through a settlement between the city and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to repair the damage the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina caused to the roadways and the various pipes that run below the city’s streets. As part of that effort, many of the streets and pipes will be completely dug up and rebuilt.
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Overall, the program was supposed to involve at least some work on 400 miles of street and to take between eight and 10 years to complete.
The original timeline called for 60 projects to be moving forward by now. But only 12 of those have actually been given a “notice to proceed,” the final sign-off needed before construction can begin, according to city records.
Green, who previously oversaw the $1.8 billion FEMA-funded rebuilding of the city’s public school buildings, said he couldn’t speak to what had happened before Cantrell took office or why so little of the money has been spent so far. The focus now is on speeding up the timeline and getting the projects underway, he said.
“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to be doing a lot of work, and we’re already starting to do it,” Green said. “It’s a process to renovate an entire city that is historic.”
One of the key things Green said he’s been working on over the past two months is speeding up what became a stumbling block during the Landrieu administration: FEMA requirements that environmental and historic reviews be completed before federal money can be spent on construction projects.
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City officials said last year their initial schedule didn’t take into account the time it would take to complete those reviews, which can last for up to 120 days for each project.
Green said he’s met with FEMA about the bottlenecks, describing the agency as “the best partner we could have,” and said the city is now looking at hiring people with the historic, archaeological and environmental review certifications needed to do those reports in-house.
Those reviews are particularly important in New Orleans, where construction might damage historic elements of the city and not infrequently turns up archaeological sites or burial grounds, he said.
“It’s hugely important,” Green said. “We’re talking about taking the time to preserve the history of New Orleans.”
Other problems are likely to take longer to resolve.
The work requires coordinating the efforts of Public Works and the S&WB, and getting those two entities on the same page has “been a tough nut to crack,” Green said.
The city has been trying for years to better coordinate the work of the two agencies, such as getting them to use the same databases and asset management software, he said.
And then there are issues like trying to figure out where projects can get needlessly stuck in the procurement process, he said.
Beyond the pace of the work, there’s another, potentially more significant, problem hanging over the entire roadways project.
Last year, the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security issued an audit saying that FEMA had not distinguished between damage caused to roads and pipes after Katrina and the decrepit state of that infrastructure prior to the storm, meaning the city might not be eligible for much of the $2 billion it was awarded.
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FEMA and local officials have defended the settlement, and no action has yet been taken to rescind the agreement or to force the city to pay back any of the money.
“We have concerns, but we’re confident that this will resolve in a positive way for the city,” Green said.