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Infrastructure czar Mitch Landrieu’s mixed New Orleans record scrutinized

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, tapped by President Joe Biden last weekend for the new position of infrastructure implementation coordinator, has a decidedly mixed record on the subject.

This is despite the fact that Landrieu is a popular politician generally credited with helping rebuild the city of New Orleans, which had been severely damaged during Hurricane Katrina and had suffered chronic economic problems.

But local observers say that perennial “dysfunction” in infrastructure projects continued even after Landrieu took office as mayor.

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While leading New Orleans from two terms, Landrieu elicited praise for cleaning up the city’s finances, attracting billions of federal dollars for infrastructure, and for removing a quartet of Confederate statues. He won each election with more than 60% of the vote and with a majority share of both white and black voters.

Coming on the heels of the scandal-plagued Ray Nagin, Landrieu was named America’s top turnaround mayor in 2016 and even generated buzz for a presidential run.

“The mayor who was in office before him was terrible, one of the worst elected officials,” said Ron Faucheux, a nonpartisan political analyst and New Orleans resident. “He left the city in a mess. Landrieu had a big job to dig out of the hole that Nagin left him.”

He’s got an even bigger job now — doling out over $1 trillion of spending to 50 states and thousands of cities and counties.

In its announcement , the White House said Landrieu fast-tracked over 100 projects and secured billions for roads, schools, hospitals, parks, and other infrastructure in the Big Easy. The appointment was praised by leaders from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, one of 19 GOP senators who supported the infrastructure bill.

A closer look at his years in office, however, reveals a lengthy list of wins and losses when it comes to infrastructure, with the losses so significant that they became an issue in the race to replace him.

Landrieu, now 61, was responsible for a $1 billion new terminal at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and $2.4 billion in funding for roads and culverts. But the airport’s completion date was delayed for more than a year, and Landrieu was unsuccessful in his attempts to redevelop an abandoned theme park. More significantly, a 2017 pump failure led to widespread street flooding in 2017. During that year’s mayoral contest, winning candidate LaToya Cantrell highlighted the problem as part of her campaign.

“She came into office in 2018 facing chronic infrastructure woes, nowhere more than at the Sewerage & Water Board, and large areas of dysfunction even after Mitch Landrieu’s generally successful two-term run,” wrote the New Orleans Advocate’s editorial board in October.

He was also criticized by a contractor group for slow progress on roadwork projects after getting $2 billion worth of funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“FEMA is on board, general contractors have been lying in wait, and subcontractors and suppliers are ready to get to work,” the group wrote in a letter, according to NOLA.com. “Everyone has taken a step forward to help accomplish those basic municipal goals except, it seems, this sect of the Landrieu Administration.”

Landrieu got high marks overall for getting the city on solid financial ground and inspiring confidence in the future. He’ll have his work cut out for him to get new projects moving in a timely matter.

“One of the most important things in this job will be figuring out how to speed up projects and prevent unnecessary delays,” said Faucheux. “It’s one thing to appropriate money for infrastructure. It’s something else to actually build it timely and within budget.”

One of the strengths of Landrieu’s resume is that he also spent six years as Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, giving him extensive experience at both the state and local levels. He’ll be on the other side now as a federal leader coordinating projects with locals.

“The unprecedented levels of federal funding will channel through a highly fragmented set of programs, impact a wide range of projects, and touch a variety of regions nationally,” said Joseph Kane, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Coordinating action across multiple agencies will not be easy, and not all places are evenly equipped to seize this moment — fiscally, technically, or otherwise.”

In a nation with some 50,000 different water utilities, it’s going to be quite a challenge.

“Landrieu is only one individual, and many leaders across many agencies will need to collaborate extensively to maximize this federal infrastructure moment,” Kane said.



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