With years of FEMA-funded roadwork on the horizon, Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s office is bringing most of the design work in-house, with plans to hire about 150 employees to handle the technical aspects of designing $2 billion worth of streets and utilities reconstruction.
The roadwork initiative, intended to jump-start the nearly $5 billion in major street repairs needed to bring all of New Orleans' roadways up to an average rating of “fair,” remains in its earliest stages, with few details worked out on how the projects will be staged.
More crucially, questions remain about how the city would continue to fund what is expected to be a multi-decade reconstruction program once the $2 billion from FEMA runs out.
Some answers could emerge next month when a newly hired consultant is expected to present options to the Fix My Streets Finance Working Group, a committee put together by Landrieu to study ways of funding road repairs.
For now, that task force, which on Tuesday held its fifth meeting since the start of the year, has few solid plans for how to pay for the road repairs in the long term.
Norma Jean Mattei, who chairs the committee and is president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers, said that should change as the group moves forward.
“We've been doing a lot of listening in our meetings, and I thought, ‘Good grief, what the heck are we supposed to be doing anyway?’ ” she said Tuesday. That echoes sentiments voiced by members at previous meetings that the group was not moving fast enough.
With potholes, sinkholes, dips, cracks, years of patches on patches and entire blocks that c…
The main focus of Tuesday’s meeting was a report by a consulting firm that analyzed every block of pavement in the city and found two-thirds of the streets are in poor or worse condition. Bringing those roads up to decent shape and maintaining the ones that are in acceptable or better shape now could take up to $400 million a year for the next 20 to 30 years, according to the report.
The FEMA money, a global settlement for damage to city streets and sewer and water infrastructure during Hurricane Katrina, will carry the projects for the next six to 10 years, said Cedric Grant, the executive director of the Sewerage & Water Board and the mayor’s top adviser on infrastructure.
The first projects could begin by the end of the year, even though officials have not yet finalized details on how the work will be rolled out across the city. But there remain questions about how to keep funding the projects after the $2 billion is spent.
One strategy aimed at both cutting costs and streamlining the process will involve hiring design teams to do much of the work in-house, Deputy Mayor Ryan Berni said Tuesday.
“The mayor’s priority is to get that money in the ground as quickly as possible,” Berni said.
Normally, the city hires outside firms to do both the preliminary work needed for road projects and the actual construction. The new policy would have the design and engineering portions of the process performed by city workers.
Exactly how the cost of the new positions would compare with the price tag for hiring outside firms to do the same work was not clear Tuesday.
Long-term funding is likely to remain an issue, however.
The city now spends about $150 million a year on road repairs. While 10 times more than the amount it spent before Katrina, that’s still less than half the amount the consultants estimate will be needed over the long haul, and there are few obvious ways to get the additional revenue.
Various options have been suggested, including asking the Legislature to authorize a local gasoline tax, changing state law to allow the city to collect property taxes on properties owned by nonprofits but not directly tied to their charitable missions, or imposing new millages, either citywide or targeted to specific areas where residents would vote to increase their taxes in exchange for more roadwork.
But each of those ideas is likely to bring in only a small portion of the money needed, and many of them would be politically difficult to implement.
City officials have dropped some of the more out-of-the-box ideas mentioned earlier this year, such as establishing tolls on some roads or bringing in private firms to partner with the city on the roadwork.
The merits and potential of all the various ways of funding the projects are expected to be laid out in a report next month by PFM, a firm the city hired to look at the financial side of the initiative.
Beyond just funding, there also are other constraints. There are limits on the amount of cement and other materials available in the local market and questions about whether local contractors have the capacity to do the work.
“Our economy in the city of New Orleans is not geared up to spend $400 million a year for the next 20 years,” said Freddy Yoder, a member of the committee and the retired president and CEO of Durr Heavy Construction. “We have to find a way to get the contractors and the subcontractors geared up to handle that as well.”