Soon after taking office in 2005, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signed an executive order banning construction by “any city department or agency on major roads” during the morning and evening rush hour. It was a popular move, intended to reduce traffic delays and “improve our regional economy, our quality of life and the air we breathe,” as Villaraigosa said in issuing the order.
The ban did, in fact, reduce traffic on certain streets, and still does. But like so much well-intended work in government, this one has had unforeseen ramifications. Today, because of the ban, city work crews are often sidelined for hours at a time; money is wasted and projects are delayed. The impact is especially severe at the Department of Water and Power, which is constantly repairing and servicing electrical and water systems. The DWP estimates that it loses more than $20 million a year as a result of the ban.
Why is such a seemingly sensible restriction so disruptive? Here’s how the rush-hour ban works in practice. A DWP crew typically arrives at work about 6:30 a.m. The members of the crew load up equipment and head to the job. Most crews are on site within an hour, but the construction ban prohibits them from working between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. on commercial streets and other thoroughfares that draw significant rush-hour traffic. That means waiting around or doing less important work on side streets as they wait until 9 a.m. to begin. Passing motorists assume they are watching lazy city workers when in fact they are seeing constrained city workers.
At the tail end of the shift, there are problems too. DWP workers generally end their workday at 4 p.m., but the ban forces them to stop work at 3:30 p.m. That means they are sometimes forced to return another day to a site when just an hour or two of overtime would have allowed them to wrap up. “The ban has had a serious impact,” said DWP general manager Marcie Edwards.
The cost of all this adds up fast. A DWP analysis of the rush-hour ban in 2012 concluded that the agency was losing $91,000 every single day because of the restrictions on its crews. Annually, that comes to $20.3 million, more than the city’s entire budget for economic and workforce development (and about four times the budget for the mayor and his staff).
And just to add one other element of absurdity: The penalty for violating the rush-hour construction ban is a $2,000 fine, so occasionally DWP crews are cited and fined, which means one agency of city government is paying a fine to another. It’s hard to see how taxpayers benefit from that.
This waste has not gotten much public attention, but it’s hardly a secret inside the government. Two years ago, the head of the DWP, Ron Nichols, wrote to Villaraigosa to inform him of the costs of the ban and to propose some solutions — from eliminating it altogether to giving DWP crews more latitude to work in lanes opposite rush-hour flow to exempting the agency at one end of the day or the other so that crews could work a full shift. Villaraigosa, who touted the ban as one of his top accomplishments when he ran for reelection in 2009, did not adopt any of Nichols’ recommended changes. (I spoke with the former mayor last week, but he’s determined not to comment on city issues out of deference to his successor, so he declined to talk about the ban.)
Since taking office, Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has none of Villaraigosa’s pride of ownership on this issue, has quietly begun to give it a second look. He has convened a working group to study the matter and bring him recommendations. There’s no set timeline on that effort, but Edwards hopes to have something soon.
Until then, however, the problems created by the effort highlight two common defects of Los Angeles government: rigidity and a tendency to manage by fiat. All too often, politicians eager to respond to public unhappiness don’t just pass along a concern and trust their departments to act on it; instead, they enact an ordinance or, in this case, issue an order. The order becomes set in stone because its outward effect — lessening traffic — is obvious to the public, while its other implications are hidden. No one wants to champion rush-hour construction, so even as the costs of keeping the ban mount annually, it remains stubbornly in place.