Cracked and potholed streets don’t just damage your car and annoy you, they also kill — causing accidents, slowing emergency response times, endangering pedestrians, even increasing the risk of West Nile virus by allowing stagnant pools of water to accumulate and become the breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Those were among the arguments put forward last week to the Los Angeles City Council by the city’s street services chief in urging members to put a measure on the May ballot to raise $3 billion from higher property taxes to repair the long-neglected 6,500 miles of mean streets.
“We have a 60-year backlog of failed and near-failed streets; that is approximately one-third of our street network,” Nazario Sauceda told the council as he explained how the city allowed its roads to deteriorate by scrimping on funding for decades.
“Bad streets also affect curb appeal and thus reduce the value of our houses,” he added.
Imagine that. For six decades city officials neglected the repair and maintenance of the city’s streets to the point that nearly a third need to be totally rebuilt and another third are in danger of failing in coming years. It is hardly surprising given the fact that L.A.'s sidewalks are even worse than the streets, and there hasn’t even been a policy on who is responsible for them in the 30 years I’ve lived there.
Los Angeles and Glendale are neighbors, but exist in parallel universes going in opposite directions. Their populations have increased at roughly the same rate during the last 60 years, so L.A. is still nearly 20 times the size with nearly 20 times as many miles of streets — 6,500 miles to 350.
I checked in with Steve Zurn, head of the Glendale Public Works Department and city-owned utility, to try to understand why the glitzy entertainment capital of the world has gotten old and run-down, while the Jewel City is a gem that looks young and beautiful when it comes to its infrastructure.
“I don’t know how you could stand up and say we haven’t done anything for 60 years because of lack of attention, diligence and vigilance in keeping the infrastructure up. Who would even admit that?” Zurn chuckled when I told him what was going on in L.A.
“Glendale has always made sure the foundation of the city is well maintained. Everybody in this city, elected officials and management alike have always supported that. It is about everything from aesthetics to the quality of life to mobility. We’ve been lucky in that regard.”
According to Sauceda, L.A. was spending only $50 million a year on its streets until funding was doubled in recent years, providing just enough to fill the worst potholes and use slurry — the cheapest repair technique — to try to get a few more years out of the roads that are still salvageable.
By that measure, Glendale would spend $5 million a year based on its size.
“We were spending about $12 million a year on our streets and sidewalks, but we’ve cut back to about $10 million a year, $7.5 million on streets, $2.5 million on sidewalks because of the economic downturn. A lot of cities just use the gas tax, but Glendale has always put other money from general capital improvement and other funds into maintaining our infrastructure so we have very few failing roads.”
Imagine that, spending more on maintenance every year avoids coming to that moment when you face a monstrous bill like Los Angeles does.
Glendale uses a pavement management system that ranks every street by category — arterials, collectors and residential — on a 100-point scale with zero being a dirt road and 100 a brand-new road.
“Today, our streets are averaging 76.2, which I’ve got to tell you is excellent. Of course I’m biased, which I’ve got to say makes me proud. In 2005, it was 73 and 2010 [it was] 74.6. At a time when a lot of people are cutting back, our road system is actually getting better.”
Zurn scoffs at slurry-sealing failing streets.
“You’re just painting the street to make it look good,” he said. “It’s a waste of money [and] isn’t structurally sound, but if you get that slurry on a street that is still structurally sound, you’re going to be able to get another 15 to 20 years out of it, at least in a residential area.”
How important is street maintenance to him?
“I said when I became the director 10 years ago that the street infrastructure is the skeleton of the city, and it is vital that we keep it well maintained and in good shape,” Zurn said. “When I leave this city, if that infrastructure isn’t in as good or better shape than when I got it, then I failed in my job.”
I can only wonder how many directors of street maintenance have come and gone in L.A. in the last 60 years, and whether any of them ever held themselves to that standard.
RON KAYE can be reached at email@example.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.