Cities Struggle to Fund Repairs in a Street Fight of Another Kind : Infrastructure: Cracking asphalt. Gaping potholes. The only aspect of street repairs that doesn't seem to be growing is the budget to pay for them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jorge Verdugo says his Pomona street is in sorry shape.

Sometimes he peers from his window and sees drivers, shaken after a bumpy ride along Wilart Place, get out of their cars to check for blowouts. For fun, neighborhood children have been known to pry loose fragments of asphalt from the road.

"The street looks like a puzzle; it's so broken up," complained Verdugo, a 49-year-old engineer who has gotten so fed up that he took his grievance to City Hall five times last year.

But Wilart Place is a small part of Pomona's estimated $20-million street maintenance backlog.

Even though the city is considering issuing bonds of $7 million or more to repair its aging streets, "you're never done," said Glen Lewis, the city's acting public works director. "You just keep working, and the list keeps growing."

And Pomona is not alone in its street maintenance woes. Across the San Gabriel Valley, from Pasadena to Claremont, cities are falling ever further behind. And potholes and "alligator" cracks increasingly are becoming a fact of life on the streets.

According to a survey published by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1987, cities countywide have less than half the money they need to properly repair their streets. The study, "On the Road to the Year 2000," took a city-by-city look at street repair funds. It predicted that, at this rate of gradual deterioration, nearly 60% of local streets will be falling apart within 40 years.

Los Angeles County alone has put off more than $200 million in street repairs in unincorporated areas because of inadequate funds, said Ron Ornee, spokesman for the county Department of Public Works. "The situation is bad, and it's getting worse."

So cities have begun to respond to the impending crisis with new urgency, with measures ranging from blue ribbon panels to multimillion-dollar bond issues.

In an ambitious attempt to catch up, Pasadena is considering issuing $10 million to $20 million in bonds this year toward infrastructure needs, including roads. Officials said about $3.5 million of the money would be earmarked for street maintenance.

In 1987, the city issued $23.1 million in similar bonds, of which $9.1 million went toward completing postponed street work.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," City Engineer Dave Barnhart said of the undertaking. Without additional bond funds, Barnhart said, his annual regular street maintenance budget of $1.9 million will fall short by $2 million to $4 million each year for the next six years.

In Covina, meanwhile, voters will decide April 10 whether to create a special fire assessment district that would generate an annual $1.6 million, which in turn would free city money to help alleviate the city's $20-million maintenance backlog for streets, storm drains and street lights.

Farther north in Azusa, city bureaucrats recently made aggressive efforts to persuade council members to finance urgently needed maintenance.

"Here, the need has been neglected because of the lack of understanding," said Robert DeLoach, public works director. "There has been no special interest group waving the maintenance flag."

But after watching city-produced videotapes of dilapidated sewer lines and seeing photographs of pothole-studded streets, the city council approved a citywide fire assessment district, which is expected to free about $960,000 a year in general fund money for street maintenance, DeLoach said.

Even with the expected boost, though, DeLoach said it would take years to clear his street maintenance backlog, currently at $4.5 million. "If I had $1 million a year, it would take me six to seven years to catch up," he said.

In West Covina, a blue ribbon committee in 1988 identified $54.4 million in infrastructure maintenance needs, including road repairs, that will not be met over the next 15 years if the city's current funding pattern continues. The City Council has yet to act on the committee's recommendations to create a special assessment district or to raise taxes.

The council rejected proposals by Councilmen Bill Tarozzi and Brad McFadden to make cuts elsewhere in the budget to raise $3 million toward maintenance. City officials instead have placed the matter on the back burner until June.

At that time, they hope California voters will approve a 9-cent hike in the state gas tax, which would be used in part to bolster street maintenance funds statewide.

In the meantime, however, West Covina's street maintenance backlog has increased by $700,000, rising to $10 million, said Public Works Director Harry Thomas.

"Streets are usually the biggest problem (in a city's infrastructure) just because of the amount of investment in that facility and their relatively short life," he said. Sewers, for instance, can last more than 100 years, whereas streets have a life span of about 30 years.

Thomas warned that road safety will become a problem within the next five to 10 years unless funding is increased.

Alhambra officials say they've learned that catching such problems early can save money in the long run. The city's annual street maintenance costs have dropped from between $400,000 and $450,000 in the early '80s to $260,000 now, said Public Works Director Terry James. Alhambra created a public works maintenance and improvement district, and the city sold bonds of $10 million toward pavement, sidewalk and street lighting repairs in 1986.

"We're saving ourselves maintenance costs down the road by doing repairs quickly," James said.

Nevertheless, Alhambra reports a $3.6-million maintenance shortfall this year because of an expensive repaving and reconstruction project on Mission Road that the city cannot afford to tackle.

Some San Gabriel Valley officials blame part of the road maintenance crisis on Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 tax-cutting initiative that restrained cities' ability to raise money. It was only last year that state legislators approved an amendment allowing cities to create assessment districts to generate funds for street maintenance.

Others note that, amid a slew of interest groups clamoring for funds for other services, there are few organized lobbyists to plead the lowly pothole's case. To combat that, Pasadena has hired a full-time employee to make sure that public works projects receive their fair share of the funding pie.

"If we don't make a special effort to protect infrastructure funds, they will be eaten up by operational demands," said Pasadena City Manager Don McIntyre.

Still others point the finger at California's gas tax, the lowest in the nation, for failing to generate more street repair revenues. The situation has worsened as gas-efficient cars have become more commonplace.

"With more fuel-efficient cars on the market, (gas tax) revenue has flattened out, even though the number of miles traveled is increasing," said Ornee of the county's public works department.

So Pasadena public works officials, like their counterparts throughout the valley, are pinning their hopes on the statewide ballot measure for a 9-cent gas tax hike.

If it passes, Pasadena would net an average of $800,000 annually in the first 10 years, officials said.

But if it fails, McIntyre said, "we won't be able to keep up, which will be unfortunate because we've spent so much to catch up."

ROAD BUDGET SHORTFALLS

Local cities say their road maintenance budgets are falling short by millions of dollars. The following estimates, supplied by city public works directors and engineers, provide a city-by-city look at the funding shortfall during fiscal year 1989-90.

Alhambra $3.600,000 Arcadia 0 Azusa 0 Baldwin Park *808,000 Bradbury 0 Claremont 214,000 Covina 716,000 Duarte 0 Diamond Bar 1,000,000 El Monte 660,000 Glendora 400,000 Industry 400,000 Irwindale 300,000- 400,00 La Puente 500,000 La Verne 300,000 Monrovia 240,000 Monterey Park *809,000 Pasadena 3.500,000 Pomona 1.600,000- 2,000,000 Rosemead 0 San Dimas 800,000 San Gabriel 600,000 San Marino 100,000 Sierra Madre 900,000 South El Monte 400,000 South Pasadena *508,000 Temple City 0 Walnut 1,000,000 West Covina 1.200,000

* Officials in some cities said they were unable to provide figures on their current road maintenance shortfall. In those cases, figures are 1987 estimates from the report "On the Road to the Year 2000" published by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

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