Large portions of Convention Center Boulevard are closed for the entire month of December. It’s just the latest in a series of intermittent closures on the Central Business District thoroughfare as the street is permanently converted from four lanes to two in order to accommodate a new “linear park” for visitors of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Construction began in September 2018, and by some accounts, the past 15 months have been a nightmare.
“It’s been a horrible, horrible experience for my constituents on the west bank and downtown trying to get in and out of the city,” Councilwoman Kristin Palmer said at an August meeting. “It affects the people who live here, the commuters coming into work and into the CBD. And you know that it affects the whole hospitality industry.”
Things may not improve much even after the construction is done. With two lanes, the street won’t be able to accommodate the traffic it once did. That’s a problem that the Convention Center anticipated. Three years ago, the Convention Center gave the city millions of dollars to help renovate nearby streets so they could absorb more traffic. But the city hasn’t touched that money, one official said. And it’s about to be reduced by half as part of the city’s recent “fair share” infrastructure deal.
During a city budget hearing in November, Councilman Jay Banks told top officials from the city’s Department of Public Works that the construction “has caused mass confusion with people trying to get in and out.”
“Frankly, I deeply agree with you,” the Director of the Department of Public Works, Keith LaGrange, told Banks. “This could have been done about six different ways more effectively than it was.”
The construction has caused problems for residents, businesses and even Mardi Gras parades. And at least one property owner is considering legal action.
“We missed business and we plan to sue them,” said John Cummings, owner of The Sugar Mill, an events space on Convention Center Boulevard. “We had a meeting of all the land owners there to talk about this and every one of them is outraged.”
He added that he believes “we’re going to have multiple lawsuits.” Cummings declined to name other property owners considering legal action.
The road is scheduled to reopen at the end of the month, and no further closures are currently planned, according to Tim Hemphill, the Convention Center’s vice president of sales and marketing. But that doesn’t mean the traffic problems are at an end.
“I think everybody is focused on the short term,” Hemphill said. “But in the long term, with increased traffic from the port, from the cruises, from freights, from us, there are some serious looming issues with how traffic moves through this area.”
But, he says, the responsibility to confront those issues lies with the city, not the Convention Center.
$12.5 million traffic fund
Anyone who commutes through this area of the city knows that traffic on streets like Annunciation, Tchoupitoulas and South Peters can slow down to a crawl. For years, commuters going into and out of the CBD could bypass these congested streets by steering down to Convention Center Boulevard. Melvin Rodrigue, the president of the Convention Center’s governing board, explained the traffic pattern at the August council meeting.
“We were having challenges from a safety perspective where those lanes were being used as a freeway because our residents were dropping down into those lanes to avoid the other failing intersections,” Rodrigue said. “We came with a comprehensive plan on how to fix that.”
The plan started with reducing Convention Center Boulevard to two lanes and building the linear park. But initially, it also included a number of fixes to some close-by streets and problem intersections so they could absorb the increased traffic, such as replacing some of the area’s numerous stop signs with traffic lights and creating easier, dedicated access to the Pontchartrain Expressway.
According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Convention Center, the flow of traffic would improve even with the smaller, slower Convention Center Boulevard if all of the recommended changes were made.
The Convention Center signed a cooperative endeavor agreement, or CEA, with the city in 2016 that allowed them to make the changes to the boulevard. In return, the Convention Center agreed to deposit $12.5 million into an escrow account to be spent on improvements for the surrounding streets and intersections.
But that money still hasn’t been touched. The roadwork on Convention Center Boulevard is nearly complete. And the linear park is expected to be done late next year. But it doesn’t appear that any progress is being made on improvements to other, nearby streets.
“We’ve got more studies than Kellogg’s got cornflakes, but nothing has happened with any of them,” Banks told The Lens. “And I don’t understand it. I wish I had an answer but I don’t.”
Banks served on the Convention Center board from 2008 until shortly before he was sworn in as a council member in 2018.
The pot of money set aside to make the changes is also being cut by nearly half. As part of Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s “fair share deal” with the hospitality industry earlier this year, $6 million from the fund is being sent to the Sewerage and Water Board. That represents one portion of the $28 million in one-time money the Convention Center pledged to the city in exchange for city support for a legislative bill that allowed it to move forward with a 1,200-room, publicly subsidized hotel project.
Cantrell’s office declined to comment on this story and denied a request from The Lens to interview officials in the Department of Public Works.
While the traffic issues may be bad now, they are only expected to get worse.
“The port continues to increase cruise traffic,” Hemphill said. “Their tonnage upriver from the wharf over there is increasing exponentially. That means more trucks in the area. And there’s going to be more people living in the area.”
But all those factors are eclipsed by what the Convention Center is attempting to do with 47 acres of vacant land it owns on its upriver side. The Convention Center is close to signing a development deal to create a $675 million, 1,200 room hotel there. And it is choosing between three finalists to develop an “entertainment district” around it, which will include a mix of both commercial and residential buildings.
“Now, where in the heck are those cars gonna go?” Cummings asked. “They’re gonna have to go up the Convention Center Boulevard, one right behind the other. It just doesn’t make sense.”
‘When you break ground, it will be a mess.’
The Convention Center board is a government body created by the Louisiana State Legislature in 1978, and it receives the majority of its funding from taxes generated in New Orleans. Next year, it expects to haul in $66.4 million in public dollars.
The generous public funding is far above what the Convention Center needs to operate every year, which allowed it to build up $235 million in unrestricted cash reserves as of last year. But for the first time in years, those reserves fell this year and are expected to keep dropping in part due to a $557 million capital improvement plan the Convention Center is undertaking.
The new linear park and street changes are part of that plan, and have a budget of $79 million.
In 2016, the Convention Center worked with former-Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration to sign a CEA that allowed them to make changes to Convention Center Boulevard, which is a public street.
The original CEA stated the city would allow the center to reduce the street from four lanes to “a three-lane configuration.” Landrieu had previously opposed a two-lane plan. It’s unclear when the plan changed back to two lanes.
“It is my memory that the city required a change in the design,” Hemphill said in an email. “At one point, the design included a bike lane for example.”
In return for the city’s blessing, the Convention Center was to dedicate $12.5 million for “traffic relocation” and improvement projects “in order to manage and mitigate the impact of the redevelopment of Convention Center Boulevard.”
“I’m just wondering why the money has been sitting there for so long.”Councilwoman Helena Moreno
The money was put into the escrow account, and the responsibility for spending that money and completing the projects fell on the city. Designs for how the money would be utilized were supposed to be detailed in an attachment to the CEA, but in the version that was sent to The Lens, the attachment is blank.
Whatever plans existed, it appears the Cantrell administration was not on board. In January, The Times-Picayune reported that officials at the Department of Public Works “took issue” with recommendations from the Convention Center, particularly improvements at the intersections of Tchoupitoulas and Calliope Streets and Tchoupitoulas Street and Andrew Higgins Boulevard.
According to the article, the administration hired its own consultants and is instead considering renovating South Peters Street between St. Joseph and Calliope streets, which is currently a two-lane, one-way street going down river, and making it a two-way street with one lane going in either direction.
“I’m just wondering why the money has been sitting there for so long,” Councilwoman Helena Moreno said at the August meeting.
“We’ve wondered that ourselves,” Rodrigue said. “Not only is the money there, the suggested solutions are there too.”
At the November budget hearings, the officials from the Department of Public Works said that although the Cantrell administration inherited the project and its flaws, they were now working to right the ship.
“We brought them into this building, their entire team, we very directly said, this is a mess,” LaGrange said at the meeting. “When you break ground, it will be a mess. What do we need to do together to solve the problem.”
He didn’t give a timeline for when a solution will be finalized.
“There was a new director [of the Convention Center], Michael Sawaya, who was frankly as uninformed on this project as any of us running city government.” LaGrange said. “It is getting un-messed, we are working on it, but the moment we do an intervention we don’t want to make it worse.”
Funding cut in half
Trying to “un-mess” the traffic problems in the area got a little more complicated last spring with Mayor Cantrell’s “fair-share deal” — an attempt to route more tourism dollars to the city’s infrastructure needs. A report from the Bureau of Governmental Research earlier in the year found that of the $200 million generated from hotel taxes in New Orleans every year, 75 percent is routed back to the tourism industry. That was a bigger share than in 12 peer cities analyzed in the report.
The deal struck by Cantrell is supposed to deliver $50 million in one time funding — including $28 million from the Convention Center — and up to $20 million a year in recurring funding from new taxes to be used for infrastructure improvements for the city, particularly at the Sewerage and Water Board.
But $6 million of the $28 million from the Convention Center isn’t actually coming from Convention Center reserves. Instead, it is being pulled out of the escrow account set up to fund the necessary street modifications to deal with the traffic congestion caused by the Convention Center Boulevard lane reduction.
The CEA amendment was approved by the council at a July meeting with no discussion. There was only one public comment from Michael Burside.
“What’s happening to the Convention Center Boulevard traffic reconfiguration if that money is being cut in half?” he asked.
A document prepared by the Cantrell administration — summarizing the change to the CEA — claims that “the identified traffic issues can be funded with the remaining $6.5M in escrow funds, which would have no fiscal implications or the city.” Because the Cantrelll administration declined interview requests, it remains unclear whether it has finalized a plan to alleviate those traffic issues.