Op-Ed: Why L.A.'s streets are so bad, and what we can do about it
I’m one of the many Angelenos who live on a street that’s a mess. The concrete is cracked. Potholes pop up every few feet. The road is crumbling.
Like 25% of Los Angeles’ streets, mine gets a grade of F from the Bureau of Street Services, the division of the Department of Public Works responsible for maintaining the city’s 6,500 miles of public roadways.
This year, an engineering report concluded that it would cost nearly $4 billion to rehabilitate streets like mine. But before we rush to write a check, we must consider how money already allocated for street repair has been spent, which is precisely what auditors in my office have done.
Based on their work, we’ve issued a report, “L.A. Streets: The Road to the Future,” which explains their findings and offers recommendations on how to fix the bureau that fixes our streets. You can find your street’s letter grade and the report at Control Panel L.A.
Under the city’s Pavement Preservation Program, the Bureau of Street Services has been using much of its funding to apply a shiny black slurry seal to our B and C-rated streets. It looks good for a while and helps preserve the underlying pavement. But our D and F streets have been left to deteriorate. They now make up about 40% of the network. And while the stated goal is to maintain streets at a B average, the streets get an overall C- rating by the bureau’s own assessment.
TRIP, a Washington nonprofit that reports on transportation issues, recently noted that the average L.A.-area driver spends $832 — 71% more than the average American — on additional vehicle operating costs each year, in part because driving on poor roads uses more gas and damages car parts such as wheels, suspensions and tires.
The streets bureau also does not always prioritize its repair work based on common-sense criteria such as traffic volume, heavy vehicle loads and mass-transit loads. So despite the slurry work that’s taken place, some of the city’s busiest and most important thoroughfares remain in the worst condition, impeding traffic and commerce, making bike riding unsafe and turning bus rides into bumpy, uncomfortable journeys.
Our auditors also found that the Bureau of Street Services has undercollected $190 million in fees from utility companies that cut and dig into our streets, money that could have been used to perform miles of repairs. Likewise, between 2011 and 2013, it did not fully utilize its budgeted funds. Auditors found that $21 million earmarked for street repairs was returned to various funding sources unused. And the city has also spent more to produce its own asphalt than it would have if it had paid a vendor for it.
Piecing together the finances and operations of the streets bureau has been a challenge. Our auditors discovered a great deal of information about its activities is incomplete or simply missing. The streets bureau says it has filled 953,339 potholes over the last three years, but it is unable to provide documentation to back that up. In fact, auditors could not find completion reports or work evaluations for 60% of street paving projects.
And finally, there’s the so-called pothole killer, equipment the bureau leased with the option to buy at zero cost that allows a single operator to use a spray-mounted patching machine to fix potholes faster, better and cheaper than a team working with shovels. The bureau later abandoned this technology, claiming it only works in cold weather. This despite the fact that the vendor says it’s been used successfully in warmer climates across the globe.
Los Angeles needs to invest in its streets, but before we allocate additional funds to the Bureau of Street Services, it must reform its management processes, adopt new oversight procedures and implement new technologies. Available software and hardware could allow the streets bureau to virtually map street conditions, track the progress of its work crews and even help monitor the condition of other city infrastructure, such as traffic lights, signs and sidewalks.
We know that street services can implement these technologies, because it has done it before. For instance, in 2012, it received an award for using cutting-edge green technologies to pave 232 miles of roadways. The award’s presenters noted that the streets bureau saved taxpayers $34 million in materials costs.
In one year, my office will perform a follow-up audit to determine the streets bureau’s progress. I’m hoping it — along with the city’s leaders — will take to heart our recommendations to increase efficiency and accountability and to implement new, money-saving technologies. If the streets bureau can demonstrate that it is using public funding efficiently and appropriately, people like me just might be willing to give it more.
Ron Galperin is the Los Angeles city controller.
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