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Secessionists Tar L.A.'s Efforts to Fill Up Potholes

Times Staff Writer

Johnny Tong was stunned the other morning when he walked out of his North Hollywood house and found two city workers in yellow hard hats neatly setting up orange cones around the little pothole that had been bugging him for months.

“Oh my God, is this even possible?” he said as he stood in his frontyard.

Tong hadn’t called the city to complain, he said, but each time it rained the dirt-bottomed depression filled up with mud, and every day when his tires dipped into it, his car made an unhappy ca-thunk ca-thunk sound.

Now here was a crew, complete with a truck filled with hot asphalt. The workers jackhammered the old pavement, swept a coating of adhesive around the inside of the hole, filled it with steaming asphalt, then raked it and flattened it with a little yellow machine resembling a lawnmower. About 40 minutes later, they were stacking up the cones, sweeping up the debris and climbing back into the truck to head for the next hole.

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Potholes are a constant in the lives of many Los Angeles residents, and a constant theme in the secession campaign. For secessionists, potholes have become both an issue in themselves and a metaphor for City Hall neglect--each unfixed pothole seen as evidence of a city too big to care about little things, to focus on the real troubles of neighborhoods.

The road crews are working harder than ever now, and with better funding, according to Los Angeles officials. But their efforts only seem to annoy secessionists more. Secessionists attribute any new maintenance zeal to politically motivated City Hall officials determined to make pre-election improvements in neighborhoods that have long been ignored. And they say no amount of window-dressing can change the fact that the city is too big to function efficiently.

“Potholes are a symbol of the poor delivery of so many city services,” said Keith Richman, a Republican assemblyman from Northridge who is running for Valley mayor. “A pothole is not only a visual reminder, but a palpable reminder of the lack of city services. Every time you run over a pothole, it jars you and reminds you of that lack of city services.”

City officials say they are tackling the pothole problem. If a citizen calls in a pothole complaint, the city aims to get a crew out to fix it by the next business day. The only exceptions occur if what looks like a pothole turns out to be a different problem, such as a hole left by a utility crew (which is responsible for fixing it), or if the city is in the middle of a severe rainstorm and has a huge spike in calls.

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A recent test, a call about a series of potholes on a Chatsworth street, showed that the system works: The large holes, which stretched over several blocks, had been filled in by the next afternoon.

Such service doesn’t soothe secessionists, who say they began noticing the city’s street-repairing zeal only after secession measures in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood seemed destined to make the Nov. 5 ballot.

The Pothole Plot

To those long frustrated by Los Angeles city services, every patched pothole or repaved bit of city roadway is evidence of a city plot to seduce voters away from the secession measure with a short spurt of calculated service improvements. Many secessionists are convinced that such activity will come to a shrieking halt Nov. 6 if secession loses at the polls, and that the would-be independent areas will suffer worse than ever from neglect after that.

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The city fills more than 200,000 potholes a year, said Bill Robertson, interim director of the city’s Bureau of Street Services. But the place is too big for officials to know the location of each hole. A lot of the chronic complainers don’t actually call the city with their complaints, while those who do get prompt service, he said.

Robertson argues that while potholes may rankle residents, Los Angeles’ record at fixing them actually compares favorably to that of other big cities.

In New York, the stated goal is to respond to 65% of all pothole complaints within 30 days. Right now, New York has only about 1,000 pothole complaints outstanding, according to the city’s Department of Transportation spokesman Keith Kalb, who added proudly, “We’re doing really good.” Los Angeles has no such backlog, fixing more than 99% of all potholes within a day after they’re called in.

But even Robertson admits that filling potholes is sometimes like bailing out a sinking boat with a teaspoon. The city’s streets are old and tired, and there is never enough money to repair enough of them to put the system in overall good condition.

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“We all realize that there’s not enough money out there to fix the need,” he said.

After an audit last fall, City Controller Laura Chick said the street bureau had “no long-term plan for how to fix the city’s streets.” She also said that, contrary to the beliefs of secessionists, the city had no systematic pattern of favoring some areas of the city over others when it came to repaving. In fact, she said, the bureau split the money for repaving among the 15 City Council districts rather than focusing on the most dire needs citywide.

Los Angeles has the largest municipal street system in the country. Just before World War II, the city had 2,500 road miles. Then came the boom, when the city grew exponentially, especially with the construction of subdivisions in the Valley.

For years before this growth, and for years after it, Robertson said, the city resurfaced only about 50 miles a year.

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“We got behind the eight ball,” said Robertson, adding that the number of miles resurfaced annually didn’t hit 100 until the 1980s.

This year, the city plans to resurface 260 miles, but Los Angeles has 6,500 miles of roads. It has a $63-million budget for resurfacing, its highest ever, Robertson said. But that’s not because of the looming threat of secession, he said. In fact, the budget has been increasing gradually since 1986.

Still, Robertson is the first to admit that it would take well over twice the annual budget--about $150 million--and the repaving of 350 miles each year for a decade to get Los Angeles roads up to speed. And he admits, too, that such a large budget--over such a sustained period--is highly unlikely.

“Streets aren’t sexy. They aren’t like beautiful bridges. But they’re essential. And people need to let it be known that they want fixing them to be a priority,” he said.

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Smaller Is Better

Secessionists say Angelenos do complain about the streets, all the time. But in a city so big, they say, it’s hard to be heard, even on a problem as simple as potholes. Getting things fixed is far more difficult than it should be, they contend.

“There’s nowhere to hide when you have a small city,” said Gene La Pietra, who wants to be mayor of a proposed city of Hollywood, which would stretch over 15 square miles instead of Los Angeles’ more than 460 square miles. “We’d have a small city council. We’d have city council meetings at night. And if you complained about a pothole and it wasn’t filled, you’d be complaining to a council member who lived right in your neighborhood.”

Richman, the Valley mayoral candidate, said an independent Valley city would provide better service than Los Angeles because it would get rid of “a big city’s bloated bureaucracy.”

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“None of this is rocket science. I’m confident that we’re going to be able to run a more efficient city. Whether it’s picking up discarded couches or filling potholes, it’s putting in place systems that respond to the needs of the people,” he said. “Currently, Los Angeles does not do that.”

Confronted with such claims, Robertson has statistics to show just how responsive the city is. In September, he said, the city received 636 pothole complaints. Some of those were not in fact potholes, he said. But of the 447 legitimate complaints, 442 were repaired within a day.

“That’s 99.2%. Normally, we’re about 100%, except when someone parks a car over one of the holes,” he said.

Asked whether separate Valley or Hollywood cities would be able to do a better job of fixing potholes, let alone tackle the more serious ills of the aging street systems they would inherit, Robertson laughed.

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He said the city has a big staff, and sends at least one pothole truck out daily to each of 24 maintenance districts. In addition, Los Angeles has a fancy “pothole killer” truck, which lets the driver repair a hole without ever leaving the truck, and is about to rent three more under a pilot program.

“This is just my viewpoint,” he said of potential independent cities, “but I think they would find all of this very, very, very difficult.”

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About This Series

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Today, The Times continues its series on Los Angeles city services with a look at how the government handles pothole complaints. Stories later this week will look at the city’s record with respect to planning, street signs and fire and police services.


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