How Mitch Landrieu, Joe Biden's new infrastructure czar, learned rebuilding the hard way | Local Politics -

How Mitch Landrieu, Joe Biden’s new infrastructure czar, learned rebuilding the hard way | Local Politics

Walk a few yards from the front door of Mitch Landrieu’s Uptown home, and you’ll find a jumble of uneven concrete and a maintenance hole jutting from the street intersection. Yellow excavators and road closure signs squat nearby. A few miles away, the Carrollton Water Plant hums with huge emergency generators backing up the enfeebled turbines that power century-old pumps.

If there’s any place that encapsulates the public works deficiencies of the United States, it’s New Orleans, where Landrieu, who was tapped Nov. 14 to serve as President Joe Biden’s infrastructure czar, served two terms as mayor.

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When Landrieu was chosen for the job, the White House praised him for restarting the city’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina with the “fast-tracking of over 100 projects,” and for “turning New Orleans into one of America’s great comeback stories.”

Landrieu’s legacy is more complicated, however. His supporters can point to a new airport terminal, successful negotiations for billions of federal dollars and renovated recreation centers, theaters, hospitals and other public works projects that demonstrate his ability to think big and “get things done.” His critics keep an equally long list of projects that took too long, deals that sputtered, potholes that went unfilled and parts of the city’s infrastructure, like the Sewerage & Water Board, that failed on his watch.

But as he begins the job of overseeing the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure program, people who have followed his career said that both the successes and shortcomings of his time in the mayor’s office are likely to inform his work on the biggest federal investment in public works in decades.

Joe Biden and Mitch Landrieu

Vice President Joe Biden, standing next to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, addresses the crowd during his visit to the Port of New Orleans on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016. (Photo by Kathleen Flynn, l The Times-Picayune)

“Building cities and running construction projects in cities – particularly historic ones – in the age of climate change is a herculean challenge,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s infrastructure chief, Ramsey Green, who has not been coy in the past about frustration with the state of projects when he took over. “Having someone like Mitch Landrieu,  who has been a part of positive victories like constructing the airport and the Saenger Theatre and all sorts of other things in the city, and the challenges of them like the Sewerage & Water Board, will be an asset to the Biden administration in ways they probably don’t understand yet.”

Landrieu took office in 2010 after the recovery from Katrina had stalled under Mayor Ray Nagin. At the time, thousands of properties were still in disrepair and some streets were so mangled as to be almost unpassable. Publicly owned buildings and infrastructure remained damaged, parks and public spaces needed to be refurbished and hundreds of millions of dollars had gone unspent. Also, the municipal government was broke.

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Andy Kopplin, Landrieu’s chief administrative officer during most of the Landrieu administration, can tick off the list of accomplishments in the early years:

  • $200 million spent to rebuild parks, playgrounds, recreation centers and libraries
  • Construction of Crescent Park along the Mississippi River
  • New libraries
  • The reopening of Joe W. Brown Park.

At the same time, Landrieu was trying to pull City Hall out of a $100 million budget hole, find a developer for the abandoned Six Flags site in New Orleans East and begin negotiations in what would become a yearslong fight for billions of dollars in FEMA money to repair the streets.

Kopplin said the achievements came in part because of Landrieu’s attention to detail and his ability to communicate his vision for the city. But Landrieu also focused on what was holding up a particular project and how to move past it. During his first term, Landrieu convened monthly meetings of all the infrastructure advisers from the city, FEMA and other agencies. They would go through lists of projects one by one to determine where they were getting stuck and how to move them forward, Kopplin said.

More than 10 years after Katrina, Landrieu secured what might have been his biggest infrastructure win: a $2.4 billion settlement with FEMA to fund repairs of roads and pipes damaged in Katrina. The money would allow for the full reconstruction of entire streets instead of a piecemeal approach that left waterlines still decrepit and potholes patched only to be reopened.

Joe Biden in New Orleans

Vice-President Joe Bidden speaks with Port of New Orleans workers on Feb. 17, 2016.

But the FEMA funding also remains a mixed part of Landrieu’s legacy. Federal regulations required archeological studies before work could begin, and a report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general’s office questioned whether New Orleans received too much money. Work progressed in fits and starts, really ramping up only under Cantrell, Landrieu’s successor, and even then running into problems with contractors, resulting in delayed projects and half-opened streets.

The ever-present issue of crumbling roads built on the city’s subsiding ground – and the annoyances inherent in fixing them – were also a regular part of Landrieu’s tenure. Yard signs sprouted saying “Fix my streets; I pay my taxes.” At yearly community meetings, Landrieu responded to road complaints with a story about his mother: First she complained about the sad state of her street. Then, she complained louder when it was torn up to be fixed.

The frailties of municipal infrastructure came into sharp relief for Landrieu in 2017, after heavy summer rains flooded a large section of the city and left others waterlogged because of failures in the S&WB’s drainage and power systems. Landrieu spent the remaining year of his term repairing ancient equipment, securing new generators and putting a close eye on the system, though the decades-in-the-making failures left his administration with a black eye.

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Cantrell, on inheriting that fragile system, worked quickly to secure new funding from the tourism sector to clean out culverts and pay for additional improvements. But the system remains prone to breakdowns and overtaxed by the more intense storms brought by a changing climate.

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Far from being disqualifying, though, some argue that Landrieu’s setbacks mean he’ll know where mayors and governors pursuing new public works will need help to get through the federal bureaucracy. Suzanne Mobley, an urban planner and former informal adviser to the Landrieu administration on several  projects related to green infrastructure, said understanding why projects failed can be an advantage the next time around.

“I want somebody who ran into a bunch of problems,” Mobley said. “I want somebody who understands that making up for 70 years of disinvestment is messy and disruptive and unpleasant on the ground and you’ve got to get through it and you’re going to get yelled at.”

Landrieu’s experience as a dealmaker – he was a mediator when he had a private law practice – has been a key part of his interactions with both the federal government and with other more local agencies and firms, Kopplin said.

To get the Saenger Theatre renovation across the finish line, Landrieu pulled together money from sources not usually associated with city projects, including historic tax credits. By the end of his two terms in office he navigated the complexities of pushing through a $1 billion new passenger terminal for Louis Armstrong International Airport and secured the redevelopment – after years of lawsuits – of the World Trade Center at the foot of Canal Street.

Joe Biden in New Orleans

Vice President Joe Biden calls New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, left, “one of the best mayors in the country” during a discussion on cancer research and treatment at University Medical Center after Biden’s speech to the American Association of Cancer Researchers convention in New Orleans on April 20, 2016.

Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio, the current chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said Landrieu’s appointment means someone with experience running a city, with all the practical problems of road work and sanitation, coupled with the headaches of dealing with the federal bureaucracy, will get to shape how the federal money is deployed.

“Mayors are pragmatic and practical,” Whaley said. “At the same time, mayors have to be visionary. It’s this really special place in politics where you have to have a vision,  and then you have to get it done.”

Landrieu also likely fits the administration’s agenda in another way: a focus on righting past racial wrongs, something the Biden administration has said it seeks to make a part of its plans. Landrieu gained a national profile when he removed the statues of three Confederate officials and a memorial to a White supremacist militia from public display in New Orleans.

He also worked with the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to create the Livable Claiborne Communities studies, a project aimed at evaluating alternatives to the Claiborne Expressway that was carved through Tremé. While it has not yet resulted in the teardown of the highway, the stretch of elevated Interstate 10 was highlighted by the Biden administration in announcing the infrastructure package.

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The White House didn’t respond to repeated requests to interview Landrieu about his new role. Through an aide, Landrieu also declined to comment.

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan plan, which Biden signed into law earlier this month, had several notable Republican supporters, including U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana. In addition to reauthorizing existing programs, it includes $550 billion in new money for fixing roads and bridges, expanding broadband access, improving public transit and utilities and funding other needs. 

Tulane University historian Andy Horowitz said Landrieu’s appointment is also recognition that the problems long facing Louisiana and New Orleans – decades of underinvestment in public services, a growing gap between rich and poor people, the threats from climate change – are universal American problems today.

“New Orleans and the challenges it faces are quintessentially American,” said Horowitz, whose book, “Katrina: A History, 1915-2015” traced a century of political and infrastructure decisions that led to the flood and the unequal recovery in its aftermath.

“New Orleans’ experience can’t be separated from the rest of the American experience.”

John Simerman contributed to this report.

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