In The News › Road work ahead

Apr 29, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Infrastructure, Orleans Parish

Road work ahead

A flurry of construction in N.O. has concentrated on fixing the city’s main arteries

Thursday, April 29, 2010
By Michelle Krupa
The Times-Picayune

Drive down most major roads in New Orleans and you’re likely to find barricades, backhoes and detour postings, all telltale signs of long-needed street improvements finally under way.

A quick turn off those thoroughfares, however, and you’re back on the crumbling residential streets that long have tested drivers’ shocks, as well as their patience.

The stark differences in road quality reflect a deliberate decision by Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration after Hurricane Katrina to invest heavily in repairing the city’s major arteries, which comprise only about 20 percent of streets but handle about 80 percent of the traffic.

Anticipating that damage to underground gas, sewer and water lines would require residential streets to be torn up after the hurricane, officials have authorized only the most critical fixes to neighborhood streets, including sidewalk and curb improvements in heavily flooded areas. The delay was designed to give City Hall, the Sewerage & Water Board and other utilities time to assess damage and coordinate repairs.

Though the strategy, which was not widely communicated by City Hall, likely has fueled frustration for residents hoping to see their pothole-ridden neighborhood streets fixed, it has also resulted in significant upgrades to major roads such as MacArthur Boulevard, Jackson Avenue and Morrison Road that carry the bulk of the city’s commuter traffic and also serve as key bike and evacuation routes. Several state-owned roads in New Orleans also have undergone significant improvements since Katrina.

Now, as major road reconstruction continues on thoroughfares including Carrollton and Elysian Fields avenues, city officials are turning their attention back to residential streets, with an eye toward making more significant improvements in neighborhoods that flooded.

The Nagin administration also is trying to hire a contractor to set up a “pavement management” system that would use cars outfitted with specialized cameras to collect scientific data on the condition of the city’s roads. Block-by-block data provided by the water board on the condition of underground drainage, water and sewer infrastructure would be merged with the street data to determine the most urgent needs.

Historically, the city has relied on a less complex survey of streets, plus S&WB repair plans and City Council members’ recommendations, to prioritize repairs, especially on minor streets.

The city’s goal is to improve every major artery by 2015, so only routine maintenance would be needed to keep them in good shape for decades, Public Works Director Robert Mendoza said. Residential streets also would be catalogued, though standardizing those would take far longer — two decades, perhaps — because of the sheer volume of work, he said.

Meanwhile, financing remains a challenge.

The Federal Highway Administration, which has pumped significant money into hurricane repairs, announced this month that it has approved another $74.5 million to repair roads damaged by Katrina and Hurricane Rita, though the list of approved projects hasn’t been revealed yet.

Mendoza also has submitted a request for $335.6 million in unspent federal recovery grants earmarked in part for the Road Home program that, if authorized, would pay for the top items on the city’s street-repair wish list. It’s not clear, however, how much of that will be available, and no rules have been established for how it will be divvied up.

Though Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu has not committed to adopting the Nagin team’s road-repair strategy when he takes office Monday, top aides to Landrieu privately have expressed confidence in the plan. And unlike other contract solicitations recently floated by Nagin, the incoming administration has not expressed resistance to the pavement management initiative.

“We have met with Mr. Mendoza, and we are looking at current streets policies,” transition spokesman Todd Ragusa said. “During this period, we are gathering facts, analyzing data and making recommendations to the mayor-elect as he prepares to take office, and that includes how to best fix our streets.”

For his part, Mendoza, who plans to accept an offer from the new administration to continue in his position, said the longer City Hall waits to commit to a long-term repair program, the worse New Orleans’ deteriorating streets will get.

“Katrina took a huge toll on the streets, but they didn’t get there in just one storm,” Mendoza said. “It took decades of neglect to get to where they got to. Each and every year (that repairs are delayed), the goal gets further away and that much harder to reach.”

Since flooding from Katrina accelerated the decline of most roads in New Orleans, officials have committed about $738 million to street repairs, though less than a quarter of that has been spent. About $209 million worth of work is under construction, while the bulk of the money — $356 million — is earmarked for projects in the planning, design or contracting phases, city records show.

That means dodging road construction zones will be a way of life in New Orleans for several years to come.

By comparison, City Hall spent only $20 million to $30 million annually on street repairs before Katrina, plus about $3 million each year for maintenance.

Nearly half of the $738 million has flowed from the federal government, while another 35 percent comes from bond issues authorized by New Orleans voters over the past decade. The remaining 20 percent derives from the state and other sources.

Of the total, more than 55 percent is slated to fix major arteries and collector streets. Another third has gone to repair minor streets, including $62 million in FEMA money that fixed about 17,000 patches of sidewalks, driveways and curbs along minor roads damaged by debris-hauling trucks and demolition equipment, records show.

The remaining 12 percent has been set aside for projects including landscaping along local commercial corridors; repairs to traffic signals, bridges and flashing beacons in school zones; the creation of bike and walking paths; and the administration of the pavement management system and a citywide drainage master plan, Mendoza said.

As city and federal officials make a second pass through neighborhoods to pinpoint residual Katrina-related street damage, City Hall expects to get another $64 million or so for repairs from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The second round will be primarily concentrated in areas that flooded,” Mendoza said in an e-mail message. “The work will be much more heavily weighted to street work, with much less sidewalk work.” Sites will be scattered, he said, but City Hall will work with the water board to identify areas where major underground infrastructure work can be followed by more significant street reconstruction.

Meanwhile, City Hall has asked state officials for $335.6 million from a pool of unspent federal recovery grants earmarked in part for the Road Home program. Though it’s not clear how much money may be available, the total likely will reach several hundred million dollars. The Louisiana Recovery Authority now administers the money, but when the rebuilding agency dissolves at the end of June, legislative committees are expected to take control of it.

Though no formal process exists yet to apply for the money, Mendoza in January sent state House Speaker Jim Tucker, R-Algiers, a three-page memo explaining that the city would use the money to repair 115 miles of roadway and completely rebuild four miles of roads. The work, the memo states, “could create over 6,000 jobs.” An attached spreadsheet lays out in detail — down to the square yard — 112 projects that could be financed with the money, including sections of 21 streets in the French Quarter, 36 major streets and 55 so-called collector roads, such as Grand Route St. John in Mid-City and Mazant Street in the 9th Ward.

At the same time, the city is seeking a contractor to initiate a five-year pavement management system. The widely employed method helps public entities, including the state Department of Transportation and Development, craft comprehensive road-improvement plans, including detailed fiscal blueprints.

The Bureau of Governmental Research in 2008 called on City Hall to adopt such a program to cure what the watchdog agency saw as three critical problems: “the unsophisticated, and at times ad hoc, process for managing street work; inadequate coordination with utilities, particularly the Sewerage & Water Board, (in planning construction); and the city’s utter failure to invest in preventive maintenance and rehabilitation.”

In its request for proposals, due May 10, City Hall calls for a firm to evaluate streets using a vehicle outfitted with digital cameras capable of identifying “rutting, roughness, and pavement distress” — including cracks as small as 2 millimeters wide.

The vendor would index the data by location, then link it to a citywide drainage master plan and S&WB data on the condition of sewer, water and drainage lines to come up with a priority list of street-repair projects based on objective criteria.

Besides helping officials decide how to distribute public resources, the scientific method can help residents understand why repairs to their street may be several years in the offing, Mendoza said. “You can show that you have a rational reason for choosing this street over the other one,” he said.

With repair priorities clearly explained, residents also can more easily detect when political forces might be at play in determining which streets get fixed first, he said.

Besides monitoring repairs, the contractor would update its digital inventory of block-by-block road conditions every other year, the solicitation states. Mendoza said he expects the deal to cost about $1.6 million over its five-year term.

Apr 29, 2010

Source: The Times-Picayune

Filed under: Infrastructure, Orleans Parish

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