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L.A. takes steps to launch sidewalk-repair survey

With a backlog of repairs estimated at $1.5 billion, officials solicit bids for a comprehensive examination expected to cost more than $10 million.

August 27, 2012|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times
  • A tree has torn up a sidewalk along Mission Road near Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights.
A tree has torn up a sidewalk along Mission Road near Cesar Chavez Boulevard… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Across the street from the Hollywood Trader Joe's, the sidewalk is so buckled that a small briefcase could be stored underneath the concrete. A second, in Boyle Heights, juts so high above the curb that it could be a skateboard ramp.

A third, on Hoover Street in Silver Lake, has so many cracks it looks more like a mosaic than a public walkway.

Los Angeles has made zero progress in recent years in reducing the $1.5-billion backlog of repairs to its battered, broken and buckled sidewalks. But last week, officials took one tiny step in that direction, by soliciting estimates for a comprehensive sidewalk survey that is expected to last three years and consume "well over $10 million" in taxpayer funds, according to street repair officials.

For nearly seven years, the debate over repairs has focused on the possibility of shifting responsibility for 10,750 miles of sidewalk from City Hall to individual landowners. But now, the City Council is weighing a new strategy: cataloging the damage citywide, tallying the total cost and then asking property owners to tax themselves to cover the cost.

The idea of a sidewalk bond measure has been floated at the same time that City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, the top budget official, has advised council members that two other tax hikes are needed to prevent cuts to public safety services, such as staffing at the Los Angeles Police Department.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, who heads the council's Public Works Committee, said he wasn't sure if he would support a bond measure but is solidly behind the three-year survey. "Sidewalks are one of the biggest public works challenges facing our city, and … our city has ignored it far too long," he said. "But before we do a bond measure, we need to get the facts."

L.A. has stopped spending money on sidewalk rebuilding, opting instead for temporary fixes — pouring hot asphalt into cracked surfaces — whenever residents complain.

With 42% of the sidewalks believed to be in disrepair, even the preparation of a comprehensive survey has been depicted as an arduous task.

The last time money was devoted to removing and replacing damaged sidewalks was 2007-08, when the city spent $6 million to rebuild 26 miles, public works officials said. With the city's budget still in crisis, "there is no sidewalk repair program this year," said Nazario Sauceda, director of the Bureau of Street Services.

To complete the comprehensive survey, specialists would walk every sidewalk over the course of 18 months and assess sidewalk decay, Sauceda wrote in a report reviewed by a council committee last week. Those specialists would document the condition of curbs and gutters, the type of street trees that stand near the curb and examine soil conditions inside tree wells. They would then take an additional six months developing software to compile the results.

Simply recruiting the right experts is expected to take a year in itself, Sauceda said.

Although city workers have previously evaluated sidewalks in targeted locations, those evaluations "were not documented rigorously" and were not part of a citywide review, Sauceda said in his report. "That is likely due to the simple fact the city never acknowledged full maintenance and liability responsibility for the sidewalks," he wrote.

Councilman Tom LaBonge voiced support for a long-range plan but was taken aback by the prospect of a survey taking three years. "We could get the Sierra Club of Griffith Park to do it in two weeks," he said. "We don't need three years."

That extended time frame would keep a bond measure from reaching the March ballot. The survey would probably be completed at the end of 2015, making a bond measure a possible candidate for the March 2017 municipal ballot. That year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's successor would be up for reelection.

Buscaino instructed Sauceda's agency to come back in 90 days with a cost estimate for a comprehensive survey. But he also asked if officials could come up with a strategy for having smaller pilot studies performed by city workers to get a sense of how bad things are citywide.

L.A.'s patchwork of decaying walkways has made the city a target for some 2,500 "trip and fall" claims per year. Larger legal challenges have come from wheelchair users, who say the broken sidewalks violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. With cases pending in state and federal court, the city's lawyers say that case law, and the Americans With Disabilities Act, do not specifically require the city to repair the sidewalks.

Council members are also weighing a possible alternative to a bond measure — asking property owners in smaller sections of the city to approve assessment districts, which would require them to tax themselves to cover sidewalk repair costs.

Strategies for dealing with the sidewalk problem date back at least to 2005, when Councilman Bernard C. Parks proposed that City Hall shift the cost of sidewalk repair to private property owners, by making any needed repairs a requirement for a home sale. That so-called "point of sale plan," proposed two months after Villaraigosa took office, drew furious opposition from the real estate industry, which kept the idea from getting beyond a council committee. However, the council has not taken a vote to kill it outright.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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