Opinion

That sidewalk that won't get fixed? Blame the war on Islamic State

Imagine the miles of broken sidewalks we could fix if the U.S. stopped fighting Islamic State for a few weeks

"For decades, Los Angeles' backlog of broken and lifted sidewalks has bedeviled pedestrians, cost the city millions annually in injury payouts and eluded a politically and financially palatable long-term solution," write Times reporters Ben Poston and Ryan Menezes. Under the terms of the pending settlement of a lawsuit filed on behalf of disabled people, the city is committed to spending $1.4 billion over the next 30 years to bring sidewalks, many of them cracked and made uneven by tree roots, up to par.              

Unless they get someone else to pay. Poston and Menezes report that "a top city budget official offered a sure-to-be-controversial approach to attacking the problem: gradually shifting responsibility for the liability and permanent maintenance of several thousand miles of city walkways to residential and commercial property owners."

Los Angeles — which has accepted financial responsibility for sidewalks since 1974, when it received federal funds for this purpose — is an outlier, both in California and nationally. State law allows municipalities to dun property owners for sidewalk repairs, and places the onus on them if someone falls and injures herself on sidewalks adjacent to the property in question. Most California cities avail themselves of the law. Nationally, such major cities as New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Cincinnati pass the buck to property owners. Washington doesn't. Chicago splits the burden. My mother, who lives in a small city in Ohio, has to pay for repairs.

In L.A., however, there's a sense that the city caused a problem and should be responsible. Local resident Jerome Green speaks for many when he told KTTV-TV Channel 11: "Who put the trees there? The city. So they should pay."

Of course, trees are good. They eat carbon dioxide, they cool the streets and they're pretty.  Antonio Villaraigosa’s goal was to plant 1 million when he was mayor. The city had planted more than 400,000 by the time he left office.

I don't typically sympathize with property owners in such matters — if you own real estate, you're a king compared with the peasants forced to pay rent. But it's true that they’d face a problem not of their own making if the proposal goes through. And that sucks.

"When Los Angeles was built, developers planted large, fast-growing species, like the American sweetgum, evergreen ash and Southern magnolia, without considering or preparing for the fact that these giant trees would eventually become too large for their little square of dirt next to the sidewalk," Kerry Cavanaugh wrote in April. In an ideal world, we'd track down those developers of yesteryear and make them pay for their shortsightedness (or, if you're cynical like me, greed). But that's impractical. So who pays?

Last year's proposal for a half-cent sales tax to cover sidewalk repairs went nowhere. Some are calling for businesses to pay for repairs to sidewalks in front of their properties, while the city would pay for sidewalks in residential areas.

Cavanaugh, correctly in my view, wants to repair the sidewalks while keeping the trees. "There are ways to fix the sidewalks without removing big trees, but those options can be more complicated or cost more upfront. The sidewalk can be rebuilt to swerve around the tree trunk. Some cities have even built elevated walkways over tree roots, according to the nonprofit TreePeople, which has pushed the city to expand and protect the urban forest." But there’s that little problem: "cost more upfront."

This is one of those times when I wish there were a way to divert the money from the federal government, which wastes billions on all manner of idiocy. Take, for example, America's war against Islamic State. Please! It's currently estimated to cost $40 billion per year. If the Pentagon held back the bombs against an entity without the capability of attacking the United States for just two weeks, just think of all the domestic problems we could fix, including damaged sidewalks.

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