A few weeks ago I ventured forth into the world and viewed a glorious sight – the road markings on St. Charles Avenue have been redone!
Then I felt sad, realizing just how horribly low my expectations of city government must be for this to be perceived as such a triumph.
Since I moved back to New Orleans in 2004, I’d noticed that the striping dividing the multiple-lane traffic on St. Charles past Louisiana Avenue was completely gone, with barely a trace remaining. Traveling down St. Charles was a comical battle between immediate locals, who knew there were two traffic lanes in either direction from Louisiana to the freeway, and non-locals (especially tourists) who had absolutely no idea what was going on. These people bobbed and weaved around like herded cats, or simply straddled the middle like some guy hedging his bets between two cashiers at the supermarket.
Entertaining? Yes. Dangerous as heck? Oh, absolutely. I can’t tell you how many times some errant motorist would start to drift over, not expecting that there was a motorist beside them, likely because they hadn’t realized there was even a traffic lane beside them.
Thus, the restriping of St. Charles was indeed a welcomed development. It was also ridiculously overdue, emblematic of the lack of proper prioritization in our city.
My mind wanders back two years to 2011, when the NOPD gleefully received a grant from the state for $350,000 to purchase a mobile DWI testing unit dubbed the “Batmobile.” As Jeffrey Bostick noted on his “Library Chronicles” blog recently, it’s hardly clear that the NOPD even has the ability to staff this monstrosity. My question is, how many miles of roadway could we have striped for $350,000?
Proper road markings are absolutely essential to traffic safety. Even chronically careless or impaired drivers will drive a good deal better with proper road markings and signage. Their afflicted brains will be less confused. Money invested in maintaining basic road markings is about the most cost-effective roadway improvement we could possibly make.
And better road markings can do even more. Thermoplastic markings have a longer lifespan. Adding glass beading to road markings makes them reflective and more visible at night. Raised plastic reflectors can be installed to increase visibility and alert drivers if they are straddling the lane. It is even possible to mill out slots in the roadway and fill them with plastic so that the lines will be permanent.
At the very least we need to be applying traditional markings with oil or water-based paint (which admittedly must be reapplied very frequently) both between lanes and at the outside edge to mark the edge of the parking lane. Notably, the latter was not done on St. Charles, even though it would have been a prophylactic against accidents with parked vehicles.
There are lots of basic services we fall behind on. Our roadways are crumbling, our sidewalks are in tatters, and streetlights, signs and signals are frequently damaged or missing. It’s small wonder that those things have fallen to the wayside when we can’t even keep up road markings on major streets. If the most simple task is left undone, you shouldn’t hold your breath on something somewhat more complex.
Nevertheless, our city still indulges every frivolous distraction imaginable. We’re perfectly willing discuss expensive propositions such as streetcar expansions, razing expressways, new parks, and new public buildings – all when we aren’t even painting road stripes anymore with any kind of consistency.
I understand that the byzantine methods by which public funds are distributed makes it difficult to say whether we could really substitute one priority for another. Federal and state governments always seem to been chomping at the bit to fund high-profile, sexy projects but are willing to leave cities to their own devices when it comes to basic responsibilities such as road maintenance, even if that means that the ultimate allocation of taxpayer dollars verges on absurd.
This explains why the state was willing to give us the “Batmobile” but probably wouldn’t approve a grant to restriping the local streets that need it most. The problem seems intractable. But don’t fret dear readers – I have a plan.
My proposal is that we fabricate evidence that Mississippi is building a mobile platform to drive out hippies, codenamed “Death Star.” We then explain that we need a large grant to build our own Death Star, for otherwise we will be inundated with every remaining unkempt bohemian in Mississippi, thus turning New Orleans into poor man’s San Francisco (they already fear this at the state level). If they object, we can have prepared interjections like: “Sir, this is a photograph of Maynard G. Krebs – Good Lord, look at him!” and “If New Orleans falls, Baton Rouge is NEXT! And here’s that picture of Krebs again!” Having fooled them with this stellar reasoning, we can then use the resulting influx of money to repair our basic infrastructure.
Alternatively (and less fancifully), we could continue working towards political solutions for better allocation of existing funds, and perhaps stop seeking out high-profile projects ourselves until we’re at least providing a basic level of basic maintenance for what we already have. It’s called leading by example.
It all starts with the discourse. The next time you think it would be whiz-bang great if the city built some new toy, think about your unmarked roads and wonder if this is really a good point of departure for a productive discussion. You might be a bit of a killjoy, but the joy of spending money foolishly is something New Orleans cannot afford.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.