updated 12/25/2007 10:57:19 AM ET 2007-12-25T15:57:19

Despite slow progress in rebuilding some neighborhoods, New Orleans' population is nearing 300,000, or about 65 percent of its pre-Hurricane Katrina size, according to a new report.

The report, compiled by urban planning consultancy GCR & Associates and based on utility hookups, estimates the population at 295,450 and predicts it will surpass the 300,000 mark soon. That will put it on par with cities like Tampa, Fla., and Pittsburgh and provide a "significant indication of New Orleans' sustained viability as a major city and as an anchor for a large metropolitan area," the report says.

Mayor Ray Nagin has pointed frequently to the population estimates as a key way to gauge the city's success at recovering from the August 2005 storm.

Some of New Orleans' hardest hit areas are still dotted with overgrown lots, empty houses and crumbling streets. But Nagin has said he thinks 2008 will be a turning point, as additional federal aid is freed up and more rebuilding grants are made available to homeowners.

Greg Rigamer, GCR & Associates' CEO, said Monday he doesn't expect the city's population to approach its pre-Katrina estimated population of 455,000 anytime soon. Rather, it will level off at about 325,000 to 350,000 in the next few years, he said.

"When you look at the (available) housing stock on the market, it's not a matter of housing, but whether we can support those who are back, both economically and from a service standpoint," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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