Street fight

jc-mg-200-names.jpgMark Gold writes: There's no disagreement that the state of LA's road and sidewalk infrastructure is deplorable. According to a study released last year by the national transportation research group, TRIP, deteriorating roads in the LA region cause more than $800 in damage a year to the average vehicle. When American cities are ranked in terms of the percentage of their roads in poor condition, the LA region is at the top of the list. In other words, it's the worst. Our 8,700 miles of roads were graded a C- overall, with a quarter of the streets receiving F's. As for city sidewalks, they may well be worse than our streets. LA Times columnist Steve Lopez has brought a great deal of attention to the problem with his pieces and numerous photos provided by the public documenting the unacceptable condition of much of our pedestrian infrastructure.

sidewalk.jpgWe may all agree that we have an enormous transportation infrastructure problem here in LA. But the solution is quite contentious. Disagreements on the amount of funding needed to make up for more than a 50-year backlog of repairs have ranged from $2 to $5 billion or more. And the debate over how to pay for the increased costs have ranged from taking it out of the city's general fund (impacts to other city services would be devastating) to a half-cent sales tax (an approach that would put the city's sales tax at 9.5 percent, one of the highest local rates in the nation) to a bond measure (a bond can pay for street and sidewalk improvements, but not operations and maintenance). Others have suggested assigning more of the cost burden to drivers (through surcharges at parking lots and meters, for example) since vehicles have the largest impact on streets.

City council members Mitchell Englander and Joe Buscaino have led the way on these discussions and recently came up with a "Save Our Streets Los Angeles" program based on the sales-tax approach favored by the city's chief administrative officer, Miguel Santana. But, in terms of timing, it looks like this approach could run into a head-on collision with the countywide half-cent sales tax favored by Metro and Move LA to fund critical mass transit infrastructure including subways, bus lines, and light rail. Something may have to give. We can't keep kicking these problems down our pot-holed roads and cantilevered sidewalks forever.

Another way to look at our infrastructure crisis is as an opportunity to transform our concrete automobile-oriented infrastructure to a mixed-use, multi-benefit, green infrastructure. Mayor Eric Garcetti has expressed this vision in his "Great Streets" program (the first six of 15 streets to be remodeled will be Crenshaw, Figueroa, Gaffey, Reseda, Van Nuys, and Westwood), as well as strong support for "complete streets" (bicycle and pedestrian friendly, as well as good for cars, local businesses, and communities) and "green streets" (for better water quality, flood control, and even water supply benefits through stormwater retention).

Whatever street funding effort comes next in LA, it needs to include benefits for bicyclists, pedestrians, and local neighborhoods, not just drivers. Of course, this will cost more, and that's where the additional benefits of a more comprehensive approach must be seriously considered by the city council before moving forward.

Currently, the city is struggling with complying with water quality requirements in our rivers, creeks, lakes, beaches, and bays. Every street improvement project is an opportunity to reduce runoff pollution through low-tech infiltration measures such as bioswales and porous pavement. As an example, in the city of Santa Monica's low impact development (LID) ordinance, every street improvement project over half-a-million dollars must infiltrate 100 percent of the runoff generated from a three-quarter inch storm. Implementation of these water quality measures during a street improvement project is a lot more cost effective than trying to retrofit green infrastructure later. LA needs a similar requirement (perhaps at a different cost threshold) for the street improvement funding measure or as an amendment to the city's existing LID ordinance. A systematic approach to providing enhanced bicycle and pedestrian benefits in areas with high current or potential use also is needed.

Filling potholes and repairing sidewalks may get politicians re-elected, but for LA to become a national model in sustainability, a lot more is needed. We have an opportunity to use our street infrastructure crisis as a catalyst for a green transportation infrastructure transformation that will provide us with a better quality of life for decades to come.

More by Jon Christensen and Mark Gold:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed