Ever wonder why Los Angeles does not do more to keep its streets from deteriorating?
Federal transportation officials think they may have found some answers. In a new audit of the city's highway maintenance program obtained by The Times, they say the city has diverted federal road funds to a series of questionable, low-priority neighborhood drain projects that benefit a few vocal constituents.
As a result, critical road repair projects have been postponed, according to the report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general's office. Because construction costs are escalating, these delays will cost millions of dollars, the audit report said.
Nearly $20 million, about one-third of the total federal highway funds received since 1982, have been spent on storm drain projects, the auditors found.
In one case, the federal auditors said, residents on Crocker Street in South-Central Los Angeles complained about the nuisance of standing water resulting from leaking water lines. The audit did not specify who received the complaint.
Crocker, because it is a short side street, is not directly eligible for federal highway funds. But city officials emphasized that the new $115,000 underground storm drain they wanted to build on Crocker would be connected to one on nearby 79th Street, which is an eligible thoroughfare.
While the city was diverting badly needed federal road funds to such projects, the condition of the overall road system continued to deteriorate, the federal auditors found. The resulting delays in completing critically needed highway resurfacing projects cost the city $8.6 million over the past four years.
If not checked, the delays will cost the city $10 million in additional construction expenditures over the next five years, the report said.
Effective use of highway funds is crucial because the backlog of street maintenance needs has grown considerably. In 1982, 2,650 miles of streets, or 42% of the city's total, needed resurfacing, the report said. By 1986, the figure had grown to 3,400 miles, or 54%.
Overall, the 19-page report concludes, the city's management of street maintenance is not up to federal standards and has "not effectively fulfilled the needs" of the federally funded street system. Selection of projects has been based on "informally considered criteria and the desires of top city managers and council members" rather than a broad, objective assessment of highway needs.
The report did not name any particular officials but said the problem involved the joint decision making of managers in the Bureau of Public Works, the city Department of Transportation, the mayor's office and City Council.
No clear violations of federal regulations were found in the use of highway funds, said Alfred Clavelli, a San Francisco-based administrator for the federal transportation inspector general. But he added, "We personally felt those (storm drain) projects should not have been done."
He said the road projects should have been given a higher priority.
Key city officials asked Wednesday about the audit either were unaware of it or said they would have to review it in detail.
City Councilman Nate Holden, chairman of the Transportation and Traffic Committee, said he will demand an explanation from city officials. Holden, who was elected in June, has been highly critical of the condition of city streets. "It's an accurate finding that streets have been neglected," he said. "All you have do is open your eyes and see the potholes.
"The squeaky wheel gets the grease . . . but we've got to stop it," he said. "We have to make sure money for street maintenance is used for street maintenance and not diverted. . . ."
Agreeing with the federal auditors, Holden said city officials will have to find other funds for neighborhood storm drain projects.
Ralph Valenzuela, chief deputy city engineer, who had seen only a draft of the federal audit, said the final report is "something that needs to be studied." However, he disputed the overall findings. "We don't think we have been derelict in the way we have been appropriating federal highway funds," he said. Decisions about which highway projects get built have "for the most part been using well thought out priorities," he said.
Valenzuela acknowledged that federal auditors had found some "marginal" projects. But he said they are not representative of the majority of street work, and he denied that political considerations and pork barreling by council members has been a major problem.
"We receive input from the political process. The public talks to their representatives," he said.
One state legislative source familiar with how local governments use transportation funding said the "shell game" of shifting federal funds around for storm drains and other pet projects is not a new problem. But it is a significant one for the public, he said.
"The difference is four people's lawns aren't going to be ruined (by flooding)," he said. "But 10,000 (automobile) undercarriages are going to be screwed up" by a pothole-covered intersection.
Clavelli said the city and the Federal Highway Administration will have 90 days to respond to his audit, which calls for tighter controls on highway projects to ensure that crucially needed projects affecting the largest number of people get taken care of first.