Los Angeles’ streets are a potholed mess and its sidewalks are cracked and jagged. Some 35% of the streets have been given a failing grade by the Bureau of Street Services, and a city consultant estimates it will cost nearly $3.9 billion to fix the worst of them. Add to that the cost of repairing the sidewalks and the tab jumps to $4.5 billion.
In the past, City Council members have floated the idea of a bond measure, to be approved by voters and repaid by property owners, to cover the cost of repairs. An alternative proposal at City Hall is to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot and let L.A. shoppers fund the work. But as city leaders figure out the details, they must ensure that however it is financed, the proposal protects taxpayers, delivers the most possible repairs and permanently ends the maintenance backlog.
City Hall officials shouldn’t forget the 2013 Measure A debacle. That was the last time Council President Herb Wesson and others pushed a half-cent sales tax hike, insisting it was absolutely necessary to preserve 500 crucial Los Angeles police officer jobs and to prevent the city from falling into a financial abyss. But after voters rejected it, the LAPD did not lose 500 cops, city finances did not get noticeably worse and, in fact, many city workers got a raise. If city leaders want to sell voters on a big new street repair program, they must show that their proposal is not just Measure A 2.0.
Rebuilding a road graded D or F can cost $400,000 to $2.5 million per mile, which officials say they can’t afford to pay from the annual budget. Council members Mitchell Englander and Joe Buscaino initially proposed a bond measure to finance the work, but later sought public input on how best to fund it. Community groups have since called for the proposal to also include sidewalk repairs, street trees, streetscapes, “green streets” to absorb storm water, “complete streets” that incorporate bicycle and pedestrian enhancements — all great amenities, but ones that could increase the project’s cost and complexity. City leaders must define their mission. Is it to fix crumbling asphalt? Or remake L.A.'s urban landscape? Can both be done affordably?
A bond has drawbacks; it ultimately puts the financial burden on property owners rather than everyone who uses city streets, and interest payments in the out years significantly increase the overall cost. Last year, city officials estimated that a $3-billion bond just for street repairs would add $121 a year in property taxes to a $350,000 home.
But a bond also has benefits: Its provisions ensure that the money is used for its intended purposes and that it can’t be raided in times of financial distress. Plus the city has a good track record managing bond-funded infrastructure projects.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller proposed the sales tax measure as an alternative that could raise more money ($4.5 billion vs. $3 billion) and spread the cost to all street users. A tax hike would cost about $91 per household for 15 years. If city leaders opt for the sales tax, they’ll need to explain how they would control costs, deliver projects on time and prevent future City Councils and mayors from tapping the revenue during the next budget crisis.
Finally, any measure to fix the city’s worst and most decrepit streets — whether financed through a bond or a sales tax hike — must go hand in hand with a commitment by the City Council and mayor to fund ongoing maintenance of the rest of the city’s streets. Otherwise, the city could find itself in the same situation in the future, with a big backlog and a big cost on its hands.