New Orleans Officials Put Muster into Roads

New Orleans is still repairing roads damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and officials hope they won't have to repair them again. For some of the roads, officials are trying to coordinate all the work that has to go underground, so the paving, electric and gas lines and water and sewer pipes only have to be installed once.

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One American city faces a greater challenge than most rebuilding its infrastructure: New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But the region has been trying to turn disaster into opportunity. In this report from NPR's Pam Fessler on how the city is fixing its roads, she begins on two wheels.

Dr. JOHN RENNE (Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Transportation Studies, University of New Orleans): That was pretty scary, I have to admit.

PAM FESSLER: John Renne just realized that taking me for a bike ride on the streets of New Orleans is more dangerous than he thought.

Dr. RENNE: I mean, I just looked over my left shoulder, and there was an 18-wheeler coming about 50 miles an hour. And I was just about to brush shoulders with it.

FESSLER: Renne is a young, athletic assistant professor of transportation studies at the University of New Orleans and a cycling enthusiast. He's showing me a recent city innovation, its first bike lane along a major road. Renne says these lanes are important for the city's recovery, even if drivers aren't yet with the program. We pedal quickly across a busy bridge into the Lower Ninth Ward, where signs of life are starting to emerge among boarded-up homes and stores.

Dr. RENNE: It'd be curious to see, are these people here going to commute from the Lower Ninth Ward into downtown New Orleans? You know, there's a lot of service jobs down there.

FESSLER: And right now, what is their alternative?

Dr. RENNE: Right now? There's a bus - and a car.

FESSLER: But many here don't own cars, and buses are infrequent. So as this city repairs its flood-damaged roads, it's also trying to install bike lanes, something that's been talked about for decades.

Mr. ROBERT MENDOZA (Director of Public Works, New Orleans): One of the things the storm has done has created this whole subset of projects that are being done. I saw it as an immediate opportunity to say, look, if a street's being resurfaced, now adding a bike lane is just adding paint for some striping and some signage.

FESSLER: Robert Mendoza is the city's director of public works.

Mr. MENDOZA: There's two ways at looking at the storm, right? There's either, look at this disaster I've got to deal with, or, look at the opportunity that's now in front of me.

FESSLER: He says that means building better and smarter, not only bike lanes but maybe more environmentally friendly drainage systems and well-marked pedestrian crosswalks. It also means better coordination between road repairs and all the other recovery projects taking place here at the same time.

Mr. WALTER BROOKS (Executive Director, New Orleans Regional Planning Commission): We're going into the Algiers area, what's called the West Bank of the river. We're going to take a look at Whitney Avenue, which is one of the first streets to be redone of the submerged roads.

FESSLER: Walter Brooks heads a five-parish regional planning commission that includes New Orleans. Bumping along with us in the van are representatives of the Federal Highway Administration, the state's Department of Transportation and the city. They're working together on a multimillion-dollar project to repair more than 50 roads flooded by the storm. It's called the Submerged Roads Program. The news here is that these bureaucrats actually seem to like each other.

Mr. BROOKS: And we've been able to use that as the nucleus around which to bring in other groups that we work with to make sure that we're coordinating the roadwork with the gas line work and the electrical work and the water work and the sewer work that's going to be done.

FESSLER: So they created a 40-member coordinating council to make sure everyone's working in sync. People here realize that the region's economic survival is on the line. We hop off the bus at Whitney Avenue, a rippled, cracked road that's a major artery between the Mississippi River and a new, mixed-use development project that the city hopes will help boost its recovery. That's one reason this street was picked for repair. Several workers are smoothing a pile of dirt in the middle of the road.

Mr. JEFF BURST (Project Management Director, Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development): They dug down to below the base, and they're going to rebuild the base back up with crushed stones. They're going to compact it really good, and then they're going to come back with a couple lifts of asphalt.

FESSLER: Jeff Burst is with the state transportation department. He says the work was scheduled after other underground repairs were completed.

Mr. BURST: One of the things we don't want to do is come and fix the roadway and then identify a sewer waterline needs to be replaced, come dig a utility trench down the middle. So we're trying to coordinate those efforts in everybody's rehabilitation programs, so it seems like a seamless, continuous effort.

FESSLER: And that's not something you would usually do?

Mr. BURST: We would try to do that.

FESSLER: He admits that it's not all that uncommon for newly paved roads to be dug up again and again. Carl Highsmith of the Federal Highway Administration, which is footing the bill here, pipes in.

Mr. CARL HIGHSMITH (Project Delivery Team Leader, Federal Highway Administration): We were adamant about what he was just saying, is that there's no way we wanted to fix this road and have somebody come back and tear it up six months later.

FESSLER: And so far, at least, things seem to be going as planned, although there's a lot more rebuilding to do. Public Works Director Mendoza says it isn't always easy juggling so much at once, and federal aid comes with a lot of strings attached. That's led to the strange sight here of workers installing handicapped-accessible crossings for sidewalks too torn up in places to be used. But Susan Allen(ph), who's lived here for more than 40 years is happy something is finally being done to a road that was in disrepair long before the storm.

Ms. SUSAN ALLEN (Resident, New Orleans): I have watched this street buckle up, cracked up, got fixed up and everything. So, with the work they're doing, I just hope it just, you know, really improves it.

FESSLER: Her neighbor Mark Furman(ph) is more skeptical.

Mr. MARK FURMAN (Resident, New Orleans): This ain't going to last. It might look pretty for two years or whatever, and it might be smooth or whatever, but sooner or later it's just going to stop bit by bit by bit. And there it is.

FESSLER: He says the road needs to be ripped up and replaced, not just repaved, because there's so much traffic. But this federal program only pays for repairs. Furman says he thinks a bike lane would help. And that, city planners say, he'll get. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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