In The News › Editorial: The underpinnings of a city

Editorial: The underpinnings of a city

Saturday, August 14, 2010
The Times-Picayune

Bumpy streets are so commonplace in New Orleans that residents have taken some extreme measures to draw attention to particularly bothersome potholes.

There was the birthday party that eastern New Orleans residents threw for a 5-foot-wide crevice on Cannes Street. They had cake, balloons and a “Happy Birthday, Pothole” sign.

Then there was the Broadmoor couple who turned a 2-foot-deep, 8-foot-wide gash in the pavement post-Katrina into the Broadmoor Green Space Migratory Bird Refuge and Wetlands Reclamation Project. The preserve included plastic flamingos, toy boats and a guest book signed by passers-by.

The sense of humor and whimsy is admirable. But crumbling roads, sewers and public buildings are a negative force on our quality of life and the city’s economic vibrancy.

New Orleans, at age 292, has far more creaky infrastructure than any agency can afford to fix, according to a new report from the Bureau of Governmental Research. “The Price of Civilization” defines the problem in detail, although researchers say their tally of capital needs is not complete.

Even with only partial numbers, the situation is grim. The Sewerage & Water Board is short almost $1 billion for the $3 billion in projects that are in its five-year capital program. The Department of Public Works needs an additional $1.4 billion to rebuild the remaining streets in “poor to failed condition” and to fix drainage infrastructure, but the department isn’t sure it can even pay for $400 million in capital projects it hopes to complete by 2016.

Other departments also are lacking cash for capital projects. “For example, the juvenile court system and the coroner’s office both have plans to rebuild and re-equip their facilities, but the available funding is inadequate,” the report says. “Years of deferred maintenance and the Katrina disaster have left a number of facilities owned by the City of New Orleans — including City Hall and public safety facilities — in need of repair or replacement.”

To have any hope of managing the billions of dollars in capital needs, the city must come up with a comprehensive approach. But, BGR points out, none of the citywide planning efforts conducted since Katrina included that kind of analysis. Former Mayor Ray Nagin didn’t even come up with a complete list of the city government’s own building needs, the report says.

As a result, it says, the various public agencies “charged with building and maintaining local infrastructure have been moving along on separate trajectories.” Unless the city sets overarching priorities and coordinates the work, “New Orleans risks making substantial investments in streets, only to have the work undone by leaking subsurface infrastructure. The city could end up with leafy neutral grounds flanked by neighborhoods that flood too easily.”

That would be a waste of time and money. And it is foolish to waste any money with such a vast list of needs.

Finding the money to repair and replace everything that is worn out won’t be easy. FEMA money covers damage from Katrina and the levee breaches but not deferred maintenance. And there is little or no flexibility in how those dollars are used. Most of the $411 million in block grant money — which is flexible — that came to the city after Katrina has been obligated already, but the Landrieu administration could use about $120 million for infrastructure, BGR says.

That is a relatively small amount, but it could meet at least some vital needs.

The BGR report raises important questions. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has a lot on his plate with a $67 million budget deficit looming, but his hopes for a revitalized city will depend partly on how sound its underpinnings are.

His administration is in a good position to pull all the disparate departments and agencies together to come up with a comprehensive list of needs and set priorities. It will take cooperation and creativity to solve such a thorny problem, but the city’s future well being depends on it.

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