Sewerage and Water Board barrels

Rough Patch: How long can you keep kicking the can down the road when the road’s falling apart?

By Kaylee Poche

Source: Gambit

May 9, 2022

Over on Webster Street, Ellis Arjmand can’t drive to his house without going the wrong way down the one-way road thanks to a giant hole in the middle of the intersection at Webster and Perrier.

He’s been watching the situation worsen over the last few years. At first, the road started sinking around the manhole cover in the street. Then one day, a chunk of the road just fell through. More asphalt collapsed around it, and pieces broke off.

“There was just like this almost sinkhole with some loose asphalt over the top,” Arjmand says.

After many complaints to the city, a Sewerage & Water Board crew came out, dumped a bunch of gravel onto the hole and paved over it. Arjmand thought that was the end of the saga — until about six months ago, when the road started sinking again.

“We kind of went through the same sequence: I complained, they put some cones up, it got worse and worse,” he says.

More than a month ago, S&WB brought a backhoe and removed some of the pavement, revealing an old rusty water pipe that had been leaking. They left some cones and yellow tape up, but the pipe was still leaking water.

Arjmand says S&WB officials recently patched the leaking water pipe that had caused the sinkhole, so for now it’s not getting worse. But replacing the broken pipe — and repairing the hole — is going to be quite an undertaking that will involve excavating part of the street. It’s been over a month since officials discovered the leak, and they still haven’t provided Arjmand with a timeline of when they’re going to address the issue.

“You have a road that has a huge hole in it … and there’s no plan to fix it,” he says.

It’s an all-too-familiar approach the city has taken to its failing infrastructure over the last several decades. The problem is not that the city’s not doing any work, but too often the work is focused on halting the immediate emergency rather than solving the underlying issues.

City leaders for decades have treated the symptoms of New Orleans’ crumbling infrastructure, rather than the actual causes, patching broken pipes instead of replacing them and filling potholes instead of repaving the street.

There’s any number of reasons officials have taken this approach: tight budgets; a history of poor communication and inefficiencies between city agencies, the mayor, the council and the public; simple disregard or concerns about what’s politically popular. Whatever the reasons, it’s become an engrained part of government, doing business and living in New Orleans. Changes to this overall mentality won’t come easily.

“This city is really defined by the fact that in government, everyone kicks significant problems down the road,” says City Council Vice President JP Morrell.

Arjmand and West Carrollton resident Ariane Livaudais, who has been dealing with a host of issues living next to S&WB’s damaged and archaic turbines, have witnessed firsthand the frustration of such an approach.

“It seems like patchwork fixes rather than just investing in infrastructure and changing things to where they work and not MacGyvering everything,” Livaudais says.

Because of government officials’ often reactive approach to infrastructure — especially as the city has experienced so many extreme weather events — New Orleans’ roads and drainage systems have become so old and damaged they’ve reached a critical point.

It’s not solely the city’s fault. When Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures flooded the city, the saltwater damaged many of the streets, but the city was limited in how it could spend FEMA money to repair them, according to Norma Jean Mattei, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of New Orleans.

“That settlement could only be used on the portions of the streets that FEMA said, ‘This was what was damaged,’” Mattei says. “But sometimes you really should be replacing the entire street because it’s an older street, it’s in bad repair or it’s got utility problems not associated with Katrina, or maybe it was slightly associated with Katrina but it wasn’t part of the FEMA agreement.”

Massive infrastructure projects and replacing equipment, of course, come with a hefty price tag. But the cost of inaction and bandages can end up costing more in the long run, in addition to creating never-ending maladies for residents to suffer through in the meantime.

“Mayors and previous councils, they have said, ‘Eh, that’s really unpopular. I don’t want to do that right now.’ And that kind of goes through every vein of all the infrastructure problems in the city,” Morrell says. “Because no one’s been willing to tackle those issues and say, ‘Nope, this is a problem that’s only going to get worse. We need to go deal with it on the front end,’ that’s how we’ve gotten to today.”

Take, for example, the S&WB turbines at the Carrollton power plant running on power systems so antiquated they require custom equipment to accept modern power. The turbines serve as the S&WB’s power source for half of the city’s water system, but they’ve been plagued with problems ever since S&WB ran them with contaminated water to drain the city faster after Hurricane Katrina, damaging them in the process.

One of the turbine stacks has been releasing motor oil into the neighborhood, leaving residue on residents’ homes, lawns and vehicles that’s not easy to get off. Neighbors have, of course, repeatedly complained. After weeks of not getting a response, S&WB officials finally acknowledged there was a problem, and they’d fix it — at some point.

“It may be another year before repairs progress enough to make a difference in the problem,” the Uptown Messenger reported in an article on the issue.

That Uptown Messenger story isn’t new. That was in 2013, and after nearly a decade, neighbors are still dealing with the oily residue. While S&WB has provided some repairs to the turbines over the years, they’ve been temporary fixes at best and none of them have gotten to the root of the issue.

The agency spent a year repairing Turbine 5 after it failed in 2017 — only for it to explode in December 2019, injuring three workers and damaging nearby homes. Livaudais, who lives on Spruce Street, says the explosion shook her house, cracked all the drywall in her ceiling and broke her neighbors’ windows.

“If I knew what a bomb was like, that’s what I’d guess it was like,” she says.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and S&WB conducted an inspection on March 4 in response to a complaint “regarding turbines malfunctioning and ‘flinging’ diesel on nearby neighborhood.” On April 18, DEQ cited S&WB for leaking oil into the neighborhood, WWL-TV reported.

S&WB spokesperson Grace Birch says the agency is currently conducting an internal investigation and is “committed to finding the cause of any potential discharge of oily fluids.” The agency has scheduled for General Electric to inspect Turbine 5 the week of May 23, Birch says.

City officials finally have a long-term plan to address the ongoing problems with the turbines. By building an S&WB substation — that runs on modern power from Entergy — they can use that as the primary source of power, instead of the turbines.

Though it’s a massive $74 million project, the plan presents long-term solutions to the problems that West Carrollton residents have been living with for the last decade. Both the old and new turbines would then be the backup power source, potentially phasing out the emergency diesel generators that have created noise pollution so loud it’s kept neighbors from sleeping at night.

Although individual, temporary solutions can seem cost effective, making patchwork fixes the foundation of your repair and maintenance approach can add up quickly over the years — and ultimately end up costing more. Since Katrina, The Times-Picayune reported in 2020, the S&WB spent more on repairs to another turbine, Turbine 4, than it would have cost to replace it with new equipment.

Of course, whether or not the substation will actually happen remains to be seen. The city isn’t projecting to complete the project for at least another two hurricane seasons, missing its original 2023 deadline and leaving the city’s drainage system vulnerable in the meantime. In January, Entergy backed out of an agreement to pay for part of the substation, forcing the city to scramble for additional funds.

Although the city council and Mayor LaToya Cantrell have cut a deal to make the first payment this month, any delays in future payments could set the project back further — and ultimately cost taxpayers more money.

Morrell says we wouldn’t be in this predicament had the city addressed the problem decades ago.

“There were instances, I’m sure, throughout the history of the city where a problem of that magnitude could have been tackled earlier for cheaper,” Morrell says. “Honestly, had we tackled this issue in the ’80s or the ’70s, it would have still been a problem and it would have been an expensive solution, but it probably wouldn’t have been cost-prohibitive.”

City council members say the way the city has handled its infrastructure has been an issue for decades, and that the current council and mayor face logistical hurdles in changing the tide.

“The city of New Orleans has not really changed its approach to infrastructure problems probably in 30 or 40 years,” Morrell says.

Council Member Joe Giarrusso recalls starting his first term on the council and calling the secretary for the Board of Liquidation. He had a bunch of questions about S&WB’s funding capacity he wanted answered.

To his surprise, the secretary started laughing. He didn’t get what was so funny.

“He responded, ‘I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at the fact your grandfather called me 30 years ago and asked me the exact same questions you are right now,’” Giarrusso says. “This has been a perennial problem for a long period of time.”

Even when there is money to spend on projects, getting basic information about infrastructure projects and their status can be difficult — even as a council member.

Morrell, a former state legislator, says the city government lags behind the state government in this regard because there’s no city equivalent he’s aware of to the state’s capital outlay plan, which outlines how much money has already been spent on infrastructure projects and how much needs to be spent to finish them.

The council recently ran into this problem when they were looking for money to fund the new substation.

“If I were in the state legislature, what I would have done is I would have pulled House Bill 2 from the previous year to see which projects were shovel ready and moved the money,” Morrell says, “and it would have taken me probably 15 minutes.”

Instead, council members had to call individual departments for this information to determine where the money should go in “this really haphazard way that took a long time, almost several weeks,” according to Morrell. He says he’s working on legislation to require an annual “public and transparent capital plan for the city.”

Council members are also starting the budget process in May this year, rather than October, in hopes of being able to improve communication with departments about what funding needs they have.

Additionally, they’ve been tackling unifying the city’s drainage system. Currently, S&WB and the Department of Public Works split responsibility for the city’s pipes, depending on the size of the pipes. Consolidating this responsibility is something people have proposed for a while. In a 2011 report on S&WB, the Bureau of Governmental Research, a local research nonprofit, recommended doing so.

“However, it would not solve a root cause of much of the street flooding in New Orleans: inadequate funding for maintenance,” the report noted.

More than a decade after that report, New Orleans finally has money to begin to put a dent in its infrastructure needs. There’s FEMA money, a $500 million bond issuance voters approved in 2019, American Rescue Plan dollars and potentially Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dollars. Giarrusso says this will clock in at around $3 billion of the estimated $9 billion the city needs for its infrastructure.

Council members say it’s a now-or-never opportunity to make massive investments in the city’s infrastructure, especially on big long-term projects.

“We’ve been fortunate in a very black comedy kind of way that we’ve had so many disasters, both locally and nationally, that resources have been freed up and are available to tackle some of this backlog of problems,” Morrell says. “If we don’t tackle these backlogs of problems with stuff like the American Rescue Act money, then these problems will continue to be too expensive to ever really tackle.”

Morrell says this will involve a lot of oversight from the council on how the city’s spending this money — taking into account the potential for receiving more funds down the line.

“The council needs to be bullish on being good stewards of this one-time money to attack the very challenging financial obstacles that face a lot of these one-time legacy projects that have not been tackled directly,” he says.

Morrell says the council sees this first portion of money from the American Rescue Plan — the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill the federal government passed last year — as a “test” to see how local governments spend these dollars. Municipalities will have to try to get the second half of those funds through a competitive grant process.

The way he sees it, New Orleans needs to invest in projects that address infrastructure challenges and take climate change into consideration to get that money.

“If we permit this money to be spent solely on things like random pet projects, and shoring up the existing budget shortfall, I think that it’s going to significantly hurt and ruin our ability to get access to that second half of money,” Morrell says.

Giarrusso says he hopes that using this wave of federal money to complete major projects will help the city not only play catch-up on its infrastructure woes, but eventually pave the way for a new approach to infrastructure in the city.

“If there is a substation that is reliable, that isn’t ancient and that works correctly, then that gives people a sense of comfort about planning for the future and being proactive,” he says. “I think sometimes that psychological effect can then turn into, ‘Alright, how do we spend our money on proactive maintenance or proactively fixing what’s happening?’”

As Ellis Arjmand waits for a resolution for the sinkhole at Webster and Perrier, he’s noticing on his runs through the neighborhood that his intersection is not the only place with a pipe leaking below the road.

“At this corner of Eleonore and Perrier, there’s a broken pipe … You can see this water rushing under the road, and all they did was put gravel over and put a cone on top,” he says. “It’s exactly the same thing they did at Webster. They put a bunch of gravel in there and paved over it and didn’t fix the leak.”

A block up from his intersection, at Prytania and Webster, the roadway is sinking, too. Arjmand suspects there’s another leak there, too.

“I’m like, guys, we’re just watching this evolve and not doing anything about it,” he says. “We’re just waiting for something bad to happen.”

Norma Jean Mattei and Joe Giarrusso agree that this uncertainty surrounding the city’s infrastructure takes a toll on residents, whether it’s around ongoing projects or simply whether the aging equipment will be able to withstand the next storm.

“When you’ve got a pothole that’s got this Band-Aid on it, and you have no idea if there are even plans to repave or resurface the street and actually fix the water line, that’s when it’s a problem,” Mattei says.

“For New Orleanians for the last several years, we wring our hands when the rain comes [wondering] will the pumps be powered correctly? Are the turbines going to run? How do we know that everything’s gonna work the right way?” Giarrusso says.

Morrell says experiencing so many extreme weather events in recent years and watching the city’s infrastructure fail to protect them from devastation has made some residents leave the city altogether, often for neighboring parishes.

“It’s really made people question whether they want to live in New Orleans,” he says. “Because at the end of the day, if the city can’t assure people on a daily basis that it can keep them safe, whether it’s crime or whether it’s flooding — especially when you have neighboring cities that have been in parishes that have very different outcomes but are geographically almost in the same spot — it really makes you question whether you should continue to invest, whether it be emotionally or financially, in the city.”

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