New Orleans is pressing the pause button on its much-maligned road projects and bringing in an outside official to help oversee the vast program, with new top deputy mayor LaToya Cantrell acknowledging the city has tried to do too much both to meet a fast approaching federal funding deadline.
In response to proliferating complaints, the city now plans to focus on finishing road and open sewer projects before launching new ones, new city council members Joseph Threat, the new chief executive, told Thursday. city deputy for infrastructure.
He also said the city will not be able to meet the June 2023 deadline to complete $2 billion in FEMA-backed projects, and plans to ask Congress for an extension.
“Now we see the problems of putting all that money on the streets at once,” said Threat, who took over the role of infrastructure chief from Ramsey Green earlier this month. “We pushed the contractors to full capacity.”
A belated recognition
Threat’s remarks, during a city council public works committee hearing this week, were a belated acknowledgment of what some observers have argued for years: that trying to complete 400 miles of street repairs in the time available was inconvenient.
In 2015, former mayor Mitch Landrieu reached a $1.2 billion settlement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funds to repair damage to roads and water lines caused by the hurricane. Katrina.
The money, in addition to the $800 million earmarked earlier, would allow the city to smooth streets and repair damaged pipelines. There are dozens of projects completed, under construction, or planned across the city.
Yet what was hailed as a major step toward fixing the city’s pock-marked streets came with a catch: The city had to spend the money by the summer of 2023.
Cantrell has maintained for years that little roadwork had started in earnest when she took office in May 2018, forcing her administration to try and get as much started as possible to ensure funding was not lost. Threat repeated that complaint and argued that he expected the city to need an extension years ago.
“Really, when we came into this administration, being two years behind the power curve and receiving these $2 billion settlement funds for the city and the Sewerage and Water Board, I started working on the extension at that time,” Threat said. “I knew we were going to have problems.”
Still, Thursday’s remarks and Threat’s statement that it would put new projects on hold represented a change. As recently as March, Acting Department of Public Works Director Josh Hartley said his agency was trying to compete for $800 million to $1 billion projects this year in time to meet the schedule.” strict” from FEMA, while acknowledging that some projects could remain under construction until early 2024.
“Our goal is to stick to our schedule and that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.
The city council passed a resolution earlier this month urging the administration to seek an extension of the FEMA deadline. On Thursday, Threat said he welcomed the council’s help in contacting the city’s congressional delegation.
Threat said he was in “constant contact” with Gov. John Bel Edwards and the FEMA regional administrator, who would play a role in the extension request.
Between the pandemic, hurricanes Ida, Zeta, Barry and Laura, the city has a “good case” for an extension, Threat said.
A pause and an auction
Threat said he had ordered a two-week “timeout” on roadworks projects so the Department of Public Works could catch up on change order requests. Private contractors blamed the slow road works on government bureaucracy.
This is the second break in the road works program. Previously, the city halted solicitation of new offers from August 2021 to March 2022.
The city’s top priority right now is to wrap up projects under construction, Threat said.
“I like to hear from residents, I like to react and solve the problems they have. We will be really active there to see what we can do to close these projects,” he said.
For ongoing and future projects, the city plans to issue a solicitation by early August for “support to the program management office” – a major change for a project that has been mostly managed internally at the DPW and the Sewerage and Water Board.
District B Councilmember Lesli Harris said she was ‘excited’ for the city to open bids for the project manager, as she has seen poor coordination of projects underway in her district around Martin Boulevard. Luther King Jr.
Instead of wrapping up the dozens of pending projects by next summer, the city appears to be settling on a longer schedule.
The threat did not specify when he hopes to complete all road works, projects. However, he said he hoped to have “most” notices to proceed on individual projects issued by the end of 2023.
These notices are a crucial step in the construction process, as they officially inform contractors that work can begin. However, as Threat noted, that doesn’t mean work on all projects will begin by the end of 2023.
City officials are due to testify again on the road and water projects at a June 6 meeting of the council’s budget committee.