STOP AND GO
More than half the city's stoplights are still broken, and for drivers, relief is at least six months away
Sunday, January 15, 2006
By Brian ThevenotStaff writer
More than four months after Hurricane Katrina, fewer than half the 450 traffic lights in New Orleans are working, creating herky-jerky commutes across a stop-sign-dotted city and a daily reminder of the long wait for even basic services.
What's more, city and state officials said, it will be at least another six months before all of the city's traffic signals are back on. Just one of five state projects to fix the damaged lights has been awarded to a private contractor, with the other four still in the bidding process, according to state Department of Transportation and Development officials.
The one project awarded, to Toomer Electric of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, will fix 35 of the 170 most severely damaged traffic signals at a cost of $2.5 million. In all, the repairs are expected to cost about $25 million, city public works officials said.
The city handled the initial work on its traffic signals, hiring a contractor to perform $800,000 worth of minor repairs. And by mid-October, the city had made operable 130 traffic signals, before a lack of money and staff caused the city to hand the job over to the state.
At the time, city officials estimated that all the work would be finished by the end of February.
But more than two months later, after state crews took over the simpler repair jobs, 65 more signals now work, for a total of 195, or 43 percent.
In written answers to questions, state traffic engineer Steve Glascock urged patience for the completion of a job more complicated than a frustrated motorist might imagine.
While the state transportation department has been able to repair most traffic signals in adjacent parishes, the massive damage to the New Orleans system, as well as the complexity of its synchronized signals, required hiring outside contractors, he said.
"But we're getting there," Glascock said.
State officials had the option of skipping the normal bid processes to expedite the work, Glascock said, but chose to seek competitive pricing.
The number of major repairs and replacements required in the city equal what the state transportation department typically handles annually for all of Louisiana, department spokeswoman Cleo Allen said.
"It's beyond the manpower we have," she said. "As for the complexity of the system, it's an interconnected and synchronized system using copper or fiber-optic cable. So it's a much more complex job."
Angry and confused
Drivers' frustrations with the stop-sign system became evident on a recent tour of the city's main thoroughfares. Near the corner of Poydras Street and Claiborne Avenue, a discarded refrigerator blared spray-painted profanity at passing drivers: "Slow the f- - - down please!"
Last week, at the intersection of Carrollton Avenue and Earhart Boulevard, where scores of drivers entering and exiting Jefferson Parish meet those crossing between Mid-City and Uptown, lines of confused drivers inched into the intersection, waving at one another and honking their horns. In the median, a state crew appeared to be running wires to the damaged lights.
Officials said the least damaged signals and those at major intersections have received top priority for repair, but the pattern of outages around the city seemed somewhat irregular. Such busy interchanges as Carrollton and Canal Street remain inoperable while the lights work at less busy thoroughfares.
The lights at St. Claude Avenue's Marais Street junction work, for instance, but those just a block away at the bigger intersection with Poland Avenue remain dark.
In a few cases, motorists must deal with mixed signals: traffic lights flashing yellow and a stop sign, leaving it a mystery as to whether to stop or merely be cautious.
Allen Yrle, a senior traffic engineer for the city, said the projects have proceeded faster than what was normal for the state department before the storm.
"We would give plans to the state for a project, and it would get reviewed for five months before it got bid," he said. "But now all the checks and balances they normally take, which I'm sure are exhaustive, can't be done. Plans are being done on the fly."
City Council President Oliver Thomas said he has heard an earful from constituents about the street lights and called them a public safety hazard that should merit more urgent action.
"There's going to be some accidents," he said.
Councilman Jay Batt reiterated the safety concerns, citing a Dec. 2 accident that killed a firefighter and injured two others at an eastern New Orleans intersection, where a stop sign had replaced an inoperable light. An 18-wheeler had pulled into the intersection, prompting the firetruck to swerve into a minivan and then roll into a ditch, police said at the time.
But Batt commended the city's public works department for making quick early repairs and posting stop signs all over the city right after the hurricane. He urged the public to be patient with the state projects, and to drive carefully until they are complete.
"The timeline is what it is," he said. "It's a monumental task, as it seems every task is these days. I know they're doing the best they can to get the lights up, because it's a public safety issue."
Not on the same page
Yrle said some of the delays have been caused by Entergy's failure to get power to traffic lights that already have been fixed, including those on the downtown strip of Claiborne Avenue beneath Interstate 10 and about "10 or 20" others he could not specify.
Entergy spokeswoman Amy Stallings disputed that claim, saying the power company does not know of any intersection that has been fixed but remains without power. Entergy has been responding to the city's request to power up repaired intersections within five days, she said.
Yrle said the city's public works department had delivered Entergy a list; Stallings said she knew of no such list.
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Brian Thevenot can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3482.