Tuesday, November 02, 2010

CityWatchLA - The Politics of Asphalt

CityWatch, Nov 2, 2010
Vol 8 Issue 87

Those who encounter a pothole on the streets of Los Angeles are advised to call 311 and to report the pothole, as if the location of the pothole is critical information that will assist the City of LA in the delivery of City Services. Nothing could be further from the truth. The City of Los Angeles is well aware of the condition of the 6,500 centerline miles of streets and 800 centerline miles of alleys that make up the largest municipal street system in the nation.

The Bureau of Street Services (BOSS) employs sophisticated data collection to inventory all 69,000 pavement sections in its database. An automated vehicle equipped with a computerized work station collects digital imagery and uses lasers to capture roadway roughness and rutting data. This "pavement distress data" is used to prioritize the different layers of service, from emergency repairs to slurry seals to maintenance overlays to resurfacing to reconstruction.

Then the politicians take over, the asphalt is divided into 15 lots and allocated evenly to the council districts where local gatekeepers release it to his or her constituents, based on those 311 calls. "Thanks for voting! Your pothole is a winner!"

Pothole Politicians have cemented their careers based on their ability to fend off the scourge of the streets, bringing to power Wendy Greuel as the Pothole Queen, Councilmembers Garcetti and Krekorian as the high-tech 311 iPhone App pothole hunters, and the Mayor with his "Operation Pothole" and "Operation Smooth Ride" campaigns.

Through it all, Los Angeles has managed to avoid actually improving its streets and still leads the nation in deteriorated road conditions. Research  estimates that fully 64% of LA's streets are in poor condition, causing LA residents to pay an average of $746 per vehicle in repairs per year as the result of damages from potholes and road debris.

Meanwhile, the City Attorney pays out on claims  to those who can prove that road conditions caused the damages and/or injuries, but only if the victim can prove that the City knew of the road condition and failed to fix it in a timely manner. This is an odd threshold to overcome in light of the fact that LA's potholes have history, they have relationships, and they are as much a part of the community as many of the other landmarks.

Consider the pothole that resides at 4th and Hudson in Council District 4. The area is referred to as the Hudson River (Video) in recognition of the perpetually flooded intersection and the algae covered liability that has caused damages and injuries for years with no relief or remedy from the City of LA.

The Hudson River is caused by an underwater stream that floods the basement of a home on Hudson Avenue. The property owner pumps the water out of the basement and into the street, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

The water on Hudson Avenue runs south and pools in a large pothole at the intersection of 4th and Hudson where it brazenly collects victims with not a hint of interference from the City of LA. BOSS staff come and visit, LADOT staff survey the route, supervisors retire, the locals train new city staff, heads are collectively scratched, solutions are proposed, more staff retires, and the years go by.

The tremendous irony to the amazing fortitude of the Hudson River is the fact that 4th Street has long been a claimed by cycling advocates as an optimal location for a demonstration of the Bicycle Boulevard concept, a shared roadway optimized for bicycle traffic.

Bicycle Boulevards are low-density local routes such as 4th street that give priority to cyclists by discouraging cut-through motor vehicle traffic, providing free-flow travel by prioritizing right-of-way, and providing traffic control that supports cyclists at the arterial crossings. Traffic calming techniques are used to inhibit non-local motor vehicle traffic and include roundabouts, chicanes, chokers and diverters.

Advocates have organized bike tours to engage the community and drum up support for the 4th Street Boulevard, a project that has seen three of its advocates go down in the Hudson river. They typically slip on the algae in the submerged pothole, resulting in one shattered elbow, one fractured elbow and one bruised elbow. Still they ride!

Perhaps City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who is responsible for handling the claims against the city for damages and injuries sustained as the result of poor road conditions, could pick up the phone and dial 311, calling in the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

Maybe the LAPD Officers who ride escort on the 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard Rides could pick up the phone and call 311, reporting the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

Surely the LADOT staffmembers who surveyed 4th Street time after time, all in an effort to feign commitment to the 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard (that's the one that failed to make it into the proposed Bike Plan) could at least pick up the phone and dial 311, voting for the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

If nothing else, the Building and Safety staff who periodically investigate the mystery of the water that appears on Hudson Avenue, rain or shine, could call their buddies at BOSS, tipping them to the pothole at the corner of 4th and Hudson.

While it's fair to suggest that repairing the streets of Los Angeles is a costly proposition, not repairing them can be even costlier. It's estimated that road conditions are a factor in 60% of traffic collisions, typically complementing or causing a failure in human behavior.

Calculate the cost of LAPD's Traffic Officers and the LAFD's Ambulances, and the budgetary impact of deferred street maintenance starts to appear. The cost of kicking the problem down the road is much greater than the cost of investing in LA's streets now.

A Great Streets commitment requires funding but the City of LA lacks the commitment to aggressively pursue the funds, falling short on applications and then failing to spend the money when it qualifies.

LA is currently in danger of losing funds that have already been awarded, $1.5 million in Safe Routes to School funding, $2.5 million in Highway Safety Improvement funding, and $10 million in Federal Surface Transportation Project funding.

For all of the talk from those who have been in charge for years, the Hudson River and the 4th Street Bicycle Boulevard remain the canaries in the mine, the indicator species that reveal LA's failure to perform and the flaws in the system.

Our streets are failing and asphalt is still dispensed as a political favor by those who lack a vision for connectivity and a commitment to a city that works.

(Stephen Box is a grassroots advocate and writes for CityWatch. He can be reached at: Stephen@thirdeyecreative.net. Disclosure: Box is also a candidate for 4th District Councilman.)


jericho1ne said...

Holy smokes, that's exactly where I almost slid out because I tried to pedal through that intersection standing up! I always wondered why the heck there is ALWAYS running water along that sidewalk. Figured it was just some douchebag constantly washing his car up the street.

That patch is suprisingly slippery, if you don't keep your butt on the saddle while pedaling, there's a good chance you'll fishtail (aka slide all over the place).

Thanks for shedding light on this one Mr Box.

Eric Moore said...

I love you, Stephen Box. If I could make the meeting I would be there. These sorts of issues are why I got involved in Neighborhood Council politics.

Rick @ Bicycle Fixation said...

The Hudson River pothole indeed has a history--I myself have dropped a dime on it six times, posting to the BOSS pothole reporting web page at http://bss.lacity.org/request.htm , and BOSS has in fact patched it each time. They have done a piss-poor job, but they have patched it.

I've documented a great deal of the Hudson River's history in numerous blog posts ( http://tinyurl.com/2fxsfur ) and have been working with LACBC for a couple of years on the 4th St. Bicycle Boulevard plan.

I must say that, having had a sneak preview of the bike plan Bicycle Friendly Streets document months ago, I disagree with your recent comment that it does not countenance bicycle boulevards--in fact the "Bicycle Friendly Street--Level 5" treatment comprises everything you or I could wish for, and would result in better bike boulevards than I rode in Portland recently.

Had another good meeting with Alexis and JJ of LACBC last night--one of our long series devoted to hammering out the nuts and bolts of 4th Street; sorry you didn't make it.

SoapBoxLA said...


Why concede to the Bicycle Friendly Streets standard and not hold out for Bicycle Boulevards? Missing from the BFS levels is a commitment to arterial crossings. The elements are beautiful but it's a diluted standard, "to avoid anticipated pushback from the community." Who is preconceding on behalf of the public?