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L.A. considers spending millions to survey its broken sidewalks

August 22, 2012 |  1:37 pm

Los Angeles officials are considering spending millions to document sidewalks
This post has been corrected; see note at the bottom for details.

Confronting a repair backlog estimated at $1.5 billion -- and worried that the deferred costs will keep growing -- Los Angeles officials are considering spending millions to document all of the city's battered, broken and buckled sidewalks.

For nearly seven years, debate has focused on the possibility of shifting responsibility for repairing 10,750 miles of sidewalk to individual land owners. But now, the City Council is weighing a new strategy: catalogue the damage citywide, tally the total cost and then ask property owners to tax themselves to cover the cost.

Street repair officials say a comprehensive survey would take three years to complete and cost more than $10 million, serving as the first step toward drafting a sidewalk repair bond measure. The idea of such a measure is being floated at the same time that City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, the top budget official, has advised council members to pursue two other tax hikes or risk having to cut public safety services.

Councilman Joe Buscaino, who heads the Public Works Committee, said he wasn’t sure yet if he will 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 pavement -- when residents complain. With 42% of the sidewalks believed to be in disrepair, even the preparation of a comprehensive survey is being described as an arduous task.

“Even though the city previously performed isolated [sidewalk] evaluations in targeted areas, those were not documented rigorously nor part of any citywide or region-wide effort,” wrote Nazario Sauceda, director of the Bureau of Street Services, in a report to council members. “That is likely due to the simple fact the city never acknowledged full maintenance and liability responsibility for the sidewalks.”

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.”

To complete a comprehensive survey, specialists would walk every sidewalk over the course of 18 months and assess sidewalk decay, city officials said. They 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's report said.

That time frame would prevent a bond measure from reaching the March ballot. The survey would more likely 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.

L.A.'s patchwork of decaying walkways look more like skateboard ramps than sidewalks in some places. With some lifted as high as 10 inches from the curb, the city has become a target for some 2,500 "trip and fall" claims per year. Larger legal challenges have come from wheelchair users, who say a gauntlet of broken sidewalks violates the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The last year that money was devoted to removing and replacing damaged sidewalks was 2007-2008, when the city spent $6 million to fix 26 miles, public works officials said.

[For the record, Thursday, 8:03 a.m.: A previous version of this post stated incorrectly that City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana was promoting a sidewalk bond measure; he has not taken a position on it.]


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-- David Zahniser


Photo: A tree root buckles a sidewalk on North Mission Road in Boyle Heights. Credit: David Zahniser / Los Angeles Times