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A road to better streets?

Councilmen's proposed street repair bond is a new revenue-raiser worth considering.

January 07, 2013
  • Los Angeles City Councilmen Mitchell Englander and Joe Buscaino are proposing a street repair bond for the May election.
Los Angeles City Councilmen Mitchell Englander and Joe Buscaino are proposing… (Los Angeles Times )

There is already a proposed county parcel tax for storm water cleanup headed toward a special ballot this spring, and a city sales tax proposal on the coming March 5 ballot. Now, Los Angeles City Councilmen Mitchell Englander and Joe Buscaino are proposing a street repair bond for the May election. It would add an average of $24 to the typical home's annual property tax bill for 20 years and would, the proponents say, raise the money needed to address a 60-year repair backlog.

It's hard to get excited about yet another fee to pay for services already expected of city government. Englander and Buscaino argue that safe and well-maintained streets are fundamental and that a bond is an appropriate way to pay to do away with the backlog — but the fact is that there is simply no end to city and county projects and programs that could be improved with a new bond or tax. Parks, recreation programs, libraries, emergency services — all could make credible claims for special treatment and funding.

The council has until Jan. 16 to formally instruct the city attorney to prepare a measure for the ballot, and the rushed schedule — little more than a week to discuss and decide whether to move forward — is all too typical of City Hall's approach to similar ballot measures that seem to appear out of the blue and demand instant action. Still, Englander and Buscaino may be on to something. The council should hear them out.

The fact is, there is simply no way that Los Angeles' 11,000 miles of substandard streets can be brought up to proper condition without additional funding. The city can fill potholes and add thin coats to aging pavement, but it has been falling behind on actual repair or replacement for decades. It is part of the phenomenon of a rapidly expanding city: Tax and bond money builds and supports new infrastructure in new subdivisions, but the older ones fall behind. State revenue has replaced funding that was lost to property tax and vehicle license fee cuts but now is running out. Meanwhile, there is a hidden cost to city residents in the form of downward pressure on property values and, more to the point, in car repair bills.

The task for Englander and Buscaino is to demonstrate that their measure would provide more than a temporary respite from declining streets. If their proposal merely raises enough money to erase the current backlog but leaves the city with the same deficient approach that got us into the current trouble, it would be difficult to support. Nor would it be a smart or fair policy if it merely allows city leaders to move money that's already regularly budgeted for street maintenance and repair to some other purpose and again leave an inadequate pot of funds for the job.

But if the bond would finally put the city in a position to maintain its streets in perpetuity, even after it and corresponding property assessments expire in 20 years, it might well be a good move. Let's hear more.

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