Putting potholes in their place
In the pantheon of life’s annoyances, there’s nothing quite as expletive-inducing as hitting a pothole. Potholes jar the psyche as well as the car, the bicycle and, occasionally, the feet, leaving behind a trail of broken axles, flat tires and sprained ankles. No wonder some residents of Holmby Hills were so frustrated by the craters on their streets that they threatened to secede from Los Angeles and annex themselves to Beverly Hills.
A blight as well as a safety hazard, a pothole seems so simple to fix. It’s not like carving into the Sepulveda Pass to widen the 405 Freeway. So why do some streets get fixed and others remain broken for years?
Because street repair problems are the result of a crushing mix of money shortages, backlogs and a history of negligence in decades past. And this: Sometimes a pothole is not really a pothole.
It won’t surprise anyone to know that the city of Los Angeles has more streets than any other municipality in the country — 6,500 miles of them. That translates into an awful lot of potholes. A true pothole can be easily patched with asphalt. Last year, the city fixed 300,000 of them. But if it turns out to be a gaping wound in the road formed by a sunken trench or the diabolical natural wonders known as water and trees, then you have to get in line for repairs. (The Holmby Hills streets fall into this category.)
The city’s Bureau of Street Services grades streets from A to F and practices a kind of triage, getting more quickly to the ones that can be “saved” with less repair and taking longer to start work on streets that need costlier, more labor-intensive care. In the 2011 State of the Streets report, a quarter of our streets got an F. The average is a dismal C. Street Services officials blame it on years of funding shortfalls for street maintenance that go back to the 1990s.
But here’s the surprising news: Despite the city’s financial problems, the budget for street repair has never been higher than in the last several fiscal years. This year, $91 million will go to street resurfacing and reconstruction and $21.5 million to maintenance and repair, including potholes.
Streets get funding from a variety of sources: Propositions 1B and C, a slice of Measure R, the Street Damage Restoration Fund, the Traffic Safety Fund and $46.9 million from the state excise tax on gasoline. Just $1.1 million of the more than $100 million earmarked for street repair comes from the city’s ravaged general fund.
And here’s the bad news: It’s still not enough to do the heavy-duty rehabilitation of all severely damaged streets. Street Services officials estimate that they need $263 million each year for the next decade to get all the work done. (They know they won’t get it. They’re just saying.)
However, there are a few things that can be done to keep neighborhoods from trying to sell themselves to another jurisdiction:
First, though it’s good that the Bureau of Street Services offers an online basic assessment of pavement conditions around the city, what might really lessen some frustration would be a long-range schedule of planned repairs. City officials say that would be difficult and could raise false expectations. Utility work, construction, necessary tree removal — all delay street rehab. But even a tentative list would be worthwhile because it would demystify the process if residents had a rough idea of where their streets stand in the queue.
Second, the city repairs true potholes when it finds them — or when a resident tells them — in a matter of days, officials swear. So take advantage of 311, the city’s hotline for infrastructure misery.
Third, though City Council members can’t put a street on the to-do list, they do have some input on which ones get priority. It helps to let them know about a problem.
It’s understandable that residents in Holmby Hills and throughout the city feel frustrated by bumpy, rutted streets. The reality, however, is that in a time of scarce resources, the street repair system is actually working moderately well.
This is never going to be a city completely free of potholes or bad pavement, particularly when resources are stretched thin to keep cops on the street and gangbangers off them. But it can and should be a city focused on doing major street repairs and keeping residents as well informed as possible about the lay of the land.
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