After the roots of a 40-year-old tree ruptured the sidewalk outside her home, Nora MacLellan and a Playa del Rey neighbor assumed correctly there was little money at City Hall for repairs. So she threw down $1,000 — the neighbor a few thousand more — and decided to fix it themselves.
More Los Angeles residents may have to do the same for the financially strapped city to have any hope of eliminating a sidewalk repair backlog that officials estimate at up to $1.6 billion. Like decades-old water lines and suspect bridges, they are an example of an aging publicinfrastructure.
Officials have been trying for six years to figure out how to fix the walkways without diverting money from what they view as higher-priority projects. They say that of the city's 10,750 miles of mostly concrete paths, more than 42% are in disrepair. Even if sidewalks miraculously stopped deteriorating, by some estimates it would still take nearly 70 years to fix them all at the current rate.
City leaders are reviewing options that range from borrowing to pay for all or part of the work to just passing the responsibility to residents. At the moment, there is little agreement on how best to proceed. City Councilman Bernard C. Parks said he and his colleagues are split "from one extreme to another."
Up to now, city workers have mostly relied on temporary repairs where pothole trucks dump hot asphalt on the cracks, often creating a new obstacle with protruding black bumps. Repairing a mile of sidewalk can cost $250,000 to $300,000; the asphalt costs only a fraction of that.
The repair problem is not just an aesthetic issue: The city regularly faces lawsuits from people who say they were injured when they tripped or could not pass at all on the public right-of-way.
On a recent day, two blocks from her home, MacLellan pointed to a section of sidewalk with a 2-foot lift she called "the beast." She said mothers with strollers, the elderly and others with mobility issues often go into the street to avoid it.
A moment later, 41-year-old Matt McElreath and his wife — and 1-year-old son Gavin, riding in a red Radio Flyer wagon — came face to face with the huge bump. The family diverted off the sidewalk onto busy West Manchester Avenue.
"Just take the time to look over our shoulder," McElreath said, admitting that walking into the street presented its own danger.
Judy Griffin, a West Los Angeles resident who uses a motorized wheelchair to get around, said she often chooses to go into the street when sidewalks are impassable because she doesn't want to be sequestered in her home.
"I'm going to be out there because you know, you have one life to live, and you want to participate," Griffin said. "I think that people who are disabled, who are willing to get out in the world … really just have to persevere and say, 'I'm entitled to be out and about and do what I need to do, and not be intimidated.' "
During a City Council committee meeting in October, administrators presented at least seven options for how to reduce the repair backlog.
The proposals included selling bonds to pay for some fixes, requiring homeowners to replace sections broken by tree roots, or creating a point-of-sale program that would require the buyer or seller of a property to get a "safe sidewalk certificate" that would require repairs before the close of escrow. There was also a proposal to do nothing and continue making temporary repairs.
Esther Glaze of South Los Angeles wrote to City Hall to say she opposed any plan transferring responsibility for repairing sidewalks, curbs and driveways damaged by roots.
"Why are we paying taxes?" Glaze wrote. "Is it no more [that] we have public works to take care of our streets, curbs and sidewalks?"
Officials note that sidewalks have not always been a municipal responsibility: Decades ago, homeowners were required to build sidewalks through an assessment process under the Vrooman Act of 1885 and under the State Improvement Act of 1911. The city would inspect sidewalks, cite owners and require repairs or bill the owner.
That lasted until 1973, when groups of homeowners complained. The cost to repair broken sidewalks was then estimated at $3.5 million annually. Some federal funding was available for the work, and the City Council assumed responsibility for the repairs and later allocated $2 million for fixes.
But the money quickly ran out, and in 1976 the city stopped funding most permanent sidewalk repairs.
Since then some officials have tried to reinstate the practices of the early 20th century with little success. One measure was a voluntary plan where property owners and the city evenly split the cost of repairs, but that also ended.
The question of who is liable for broken sidewalks remains complicated. Some homeowners say the city should pay for repairs because it planted trees that destroyed many sidewalks. In response, some city officials say many of the trees belong to property owners.
"Property owners already own the sidewalks, and the property owners are responsible for the maintenance of the sidewalks," said Laurie Rittenberg, a deputy city attorney.
She said the city becomes legally responsible if someone who falls on a sidewalk damaged by tree roots can prove it was a danger. But homeowners can also be legally responsible if they contributed to the disrepair.
Rittenberg said the city spends $3 million to $5 million each year on trip-and-fall liability suits related to sidewalks.