Cost of the City's Distractions: $4 Billion and Counting

Uplifting | Photo: damian m/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Los Angeles was long derided by its critics as an insubstantial place, a tacked-together slapdash assemblage, a plywood and plastic stage set with nothing much behind it. Los Angeles wouldn't last, they said.

That was a moral critique. A complaint -- not without some truth - about who we were, or are. But the critics of Los Angeles may have been right about the physical stuff of the city. Modern Los Angeles was built -- more or less -- in one continuous boom from 1920 to 1970.

Ignored for decades, the infrastructure of that long boom time is falling apart.

Stately But Destructive
Stately But Destructive | Photo: Hilmil1/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Almost half the city's sidewalks -- 42 percent -- are in disrepair. The damage ranges from separated sections of concrete, each lip a potential "trip and fall" claim -- to entire walkways riven by tree roots into impassibility (as KCET's "SoCal Connected" showed in 2011). It would take an estimated at $1.5 billion to fix all the cracked and disintegrating sidewalks beneath the feet of pedestrians.

(A "trip and fall" is no joke to the city's general fund. Los Angeles tallied 2,500 claims last year. In the city I used to work for, $10,000 was set aside for each claim, either to settle or pay a court judgment.)

The condition of city streets is just as bad. The city's Bureau of Street Services recently warned the city council's Public Works committee that the bureau would need $2.63 billion to meet street repair needs.

Of course, the city doesn't have that kind of money. In fact, less than one percent of a new, $112-million street maintenance plan comes from the the city's general fund. The rest is from grants, county transit taxes, and the city's share of state gas taxes. But those revenues also have to offset other transportation costs.

City council members hope that accelerated spending on streets in 2013 will tamp down the anger of voters and cool secessionist neighborhood associations. But filling potholes and slurry sealing streets are only band-aid fixes that mostly serve the politically anxious. The same potholes will be hollowed out by time and weather and have to be refilled in two or three years. Slurry sealing, which is like a thick coat of black paint, has a "lifetime" of eight years or less.

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Street resurfacing -- which grinds down the asphalt and lays down a seamless new roadway -- is time consuming and very expensive. So is water main replacement and sewer maintenance, but these essential (and hidden) parts of the city are aging too, particularly in neighborhoods where increasing residential density is stressing 75-year-old mains.

Los Angeles has always thought of itself as new -- and it was, until the 1970s. But time and inattention have unraveled that illusion. Los Angeles -- in ways that matter to residents -- has aged poorly in the past 40 years as a succession of mayors and council members deferred the replacement of decaying infrastructure. Distracted by politics, development schemes, campaign contributors, and their own enthusiasms, city leaders paid no attention.

The price of their distraction is at least $4 billion just for the repair of the streets and sidewalks of "old" Los Angeles.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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