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Editorial

Pitfalls of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's pothole project

He wants to speed up street repairs with borrowed dollars. That would create more jobs now but at the expense of road construction work in the future.

November 11, 2011
  • Potholes like this one seen last January would be eliminated on many city streets under Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan.
Potholes like this one seen last January would be eliminated on many city… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is rarely at a loss for ideas, and in recent months he's put that boundless mental energy to work on the flagging local economy. The latest brainstorm: using borrowed funds to spend almost three decades' worth of street repair dollars during the next few years. That would create more jobs now, but it would do so at the expense of road construction work in the future. It would also add needless costs and hamstring city leaders long after the mayor has moved on to his next gig.

Filling potholes is a mundane part of city government, yet one of the most common complaints about Los Angeles is that it doesn't fill enough of them. The fiscal problems that have plagued the city have tightened the budget for streets, allowing too many roadways to fall into disrepair. That's among the reasons voters in the county supported Measure R in 2008, adding a half-cent to the sales tax for 30 years to raise an estimated $36 billion for transportation projects. Although most of the funds were reserved for mass transit and highway projects, 15% of the dollars will go to local governments within the county for street maintenance and related projects.

Rather than collecting the tax dollars and then spending them over the next 27 years, Villaraigosa wants to borrow nearly $800 million now, spend it by 2013 and then pay the money back (with interest) with the city's Measure R revenues. The "L.A. Road Works" plan would repave about a quarter of the city's streets during Villaraigosa's final two years in office, taking advantage of today's prices and low interest rates to accomplish more than could be done if the money were spent gradually, the mayor's aides told The Times.

The plan is similar to Villaraigosa's "30/10" initiative to borrow billions from the federal government to accelerate the costly transit projects financed by Measure R. Innovative and smart, that plan would put tens of thousands of people to work while the unemployment rate is still high, and would bring vital improvements sooner to the city's mass-transit system.

Spending almost all of the city's Measure R street repair funds in two years would bring the benefits of those repairs sooner too, and could support some costlier projects. But the borrowing required by the plan would cost the city more than $650 million in interest payments — funds that would be better spent on asphalt. In addition, the plan would leave Villaraigosa's successors with little or no money to supplement their strained transportation budgets and fix new problems, preventing them from shifting priorities in response to changing needs and events. Potholes will be with us always, but Measure R dollars will not.

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