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Dark streets and a search for enlightenment

Times Staff Writer

Every so often this reporter takes mass transit to work. Rarely do such good deeds go unpunished.

Take, for example, the events of Tuesday morning.

Having almost completed the pleasant walk from Union Station to The Times’ office in City Hall, it was hard to overlook a gaggle of officials roasting in the sun at the corner of Main and Temple.

A dais and easel were there, too, meaning only one thing. It was time for another news conference -- one that could easily have been avoided by simply driving to work. Rrrr.

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And the news of the day was . . .

Bad people in the city have been breaking into city streetlights and stealing copper wiring. The city can’t seem to stop such thefts.

Only nine city officials took the microphone to get the message across that this was a very naughty thing to do. Councilman Tom LaBonge also intoned this important warning: “It’s dangerous to be around electricity.”

The best -- or perhaps worst -- part of the story was that some streetlights in Boyle Heights still haven’t been fixed since thieves struck in August.

There is some irony here. Just down the hill from Boyle Heights, Department of Water and Power crews have been working since early last month to install Christmas lights on the 4th Street Bridge, while blocking traffic lanes doing so.

But the DWP doesn’t fix streetlights. That’s the purview of the Bureau of Street Lighting. It is also worth noting that when we called the Department of Transportation to find out which agency was blocking lanes on the bridge, the agency didn’t know. Officials had to look at one of their remote cameras positioned on the bridge to figure it out.

Why does it take the Bureau of Street Lighting more than three months to fix a streetlight?

“It doesn’t do us any good to replace the wire without the secure lids” on the base of the streetlights, said Cynthia Ruiz, president of the Board of Public Works, adding that a special order has been placed for tamper-proof lids.

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But, we asked, isn’t it just a wee bit weird that a DWP crew has time to put up Christmas lights but the city can’t fix a streetlight in a timely fashion?

Ruiz: “You know I’m going to say no comment to that. You’ll have to ask the DWP.”

Me: “But you’re laughing.”

Ruiz: “So are you.”

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So why does it take the nation’s largest municipal utility nearly one month to string up a bunch of Christmas lights -- like they do each year?

“We’ve had one crew working intermittently for the past three weeks,” said DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo. “There are over 7,000 lights. They are elevated and the crews are putting up decoration in addition to the lights. It’s obviously a very labor-intensive process. They had to string power from five different locations.” Ah.

But the “news” was just starting to flow, right?

Later in the afternoon, the mayor’s office issued a news release with this headline: “Mayor Villaraigosa launches the ‘Right to Turn Left’ Initiative.” There would be a news conference the next morning.

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The city was going to “add 100 new left turn signal arrows at the most congested intersections” in Los Angeles, the release stated.

This was a curious assertion.

First, and surely it’s just a coincidence, the “right to turn left” was a phrase trumpeted during the 2005 mayoral campaign of Bob Hertzberg, then-opponent of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Second, in March 2006, the City Council approved about 450 new left-turn signals -- a victory of sorts for Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who pushed the plan and has talked about it often in public. The Council Gazette, the taxpayer-funded newsletter produced by council staff to promote its good deeds, even touted the accomplishment.

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As it turns out, the 100 new left-turn signals trumpeted by the mayor are some of the lights that were approved last year, and the city already has installed more than 100 of them, according to Greuel’s office. Greuel joined Villaraigosa at the news conference and she, too, conveniently didn’t mention that the 100 new lights were recycled news.

“These are lights that were included as part of last year’s budget,” said Matt Szabo, a mayoral press secretary. “It’s one thing to have this in the City Council Gazette, but it’s important that we talk about the substantive things that we’re doing, particularly when heading into a very tight budget. This is one of the mayor’s principal priorities and a priority that he intends to make good on.”

So why all the hubbub?

It’s a chance for Villaraigosa and Greuel to get on TV, which given time constraints is likely to ignore details such as whether this was new “news” or not.

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What’s interesting about the MTA’s new plan for congestion pricing?

It may punish the people doing a good thing -- carpooling -- by making them pay to use the lane.

The plan is to charge all motorists who use the carpool lane on stretches of three freeways -- the 10 and the 210 in the San Gabriel Valley, and the 110 south of downtown Los Angeles.

The MTA is submitting the plan to the federal government in hopes of securing money for the project. The lack of a congestion-pricing plan earlier this year caused the region to miss out on a huge federal transportation grant.

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If the project is a go, single-occupant vehicles would be allowed to use the lanes, but they would pay more than multipassenger vehicles.

It’s a plan that begs many questions. If carpool lanes are already frequently clogged, how will this help speed traffic? Will carpoolers be willing to pay? Would you pay if congestion pricing comes to a freeway near you?

“In the area that I’m coming from, there are a lot of people who don’t care about cost and they’d be willing to pay for it,” said Mark VanKirk, who uses the busy 405 carpool lane to commute with a passenger between his home in Mission Hills and job in El Segundo. “There would be no benefit to carpooling.”

What do you think? Please e-mail your thoughts.

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How’s that DWP water situation looking?

Even with the storm during the weekend, not so good.

The city is heavily reliant on snowfall in the Eastern Sierra Nevada to help fill the two Los Angeles aqueducts that usually supply L.A. with 50% of its drinking water. These days, the aqueducts are supplying only 18% of the city’s water because of the drought.

As my colleague Deborah Schoch reports in today’s paper, water use hasn’t been dropping in the city in recent months. And, last week, the council delayed considering water rate increases that are mildly controversial -- even as the city pays for more expensive water from elsewhere.

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Will the city ever put real water restrictions in place?

There is a law on the books that allows the city to do so, but officials have been waiting to see how this winter shapes up.

DWP chief David Nahai said Friday that he’s not optimistic thus far. He said that if precipitation doesn’t come, the DWP in February or March may first seek mandatory restrictions on outdoor watering and then, if necessary, surcharges for those who use too much water.

“Mandatory rationing has ramifications -- it effects the economy and businesses that are dependent on the water we provide,” Nahai said. “This is not a decision to be made lightly.”

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The storm this past weekend helped the Eastern Sierra some, but two things remain uncertain: whether the snows needed will come and, if they don’t, whether city politicians will act.

Program note: We’ll be back in two weeks with a little holiday gift for the City Council.

steve.hymon@latimes.com


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