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L.A. Faces $15 Billion Bill as Pipes Spring Leaks: Cities

Sidewalk Repair
City of Los Angeles Public Works Department Street Services workers repair a sidewalk in Los Angeles. Photographer: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Los Angeles is showing its age, and city officials don’t have plans for financing the facelift.

From buckling sidewalks to potholed thoroughfares to storm drains that can’t handle a little rain, the infrastructure that holds the second-largest U.S. city together is suffering from years of deferred maintenance. Bringing pipes that deliver water to 3.9 million people up to snuff could cost $4 billion -- more than half the city’s annual operating budget. The bill for repaving streets will be almost that much, according to estimates from a city consultant, and patching or replacing cracked sidewalks will require $640 million.

City Council members recently gave up on a proposal to ask voters for a sales-tax increase to finance street and sidewalk repairs, and Mayor Eric Garcetti has ruled out raising water rates anytime soon to upgrade pipelines.

“We’re in trouble,” said Jack Humphreville, the budget advocate for L.A.’s advisory neighborhood councils. His estimate, based on figures provided by the city, is that getting public works into good shape will take $10 billion to $15 billion. “This is no different from debt.”

A 30-foot geyser that spewed some 20 million gallons of water from a ruptured trunk line under Sunset Boulevard on July 29 brought renewed attention to the decay. The council called on the Department of Water and Power to scrutinize pipelines and other parts of the system, but didn’t discuss ways of finding money to fix what might be broken.

Trunk-Line Bust

“We can’t tax our way out of this,” said Councilman Mitchell Englander. Voters won’t approve adding to the local sales tax -- which at 9 percent is among the nation’s highest -- and would revolt if the price of water went up, he said. As it is, the rate is the seventh-highest in the U.S., according to a survey by the conservation nonprofit Circle of Blue.

The riveted-steel line that burst under Sunset is 90 years old. To replace every line by the time it hits 100 -- as many engineers recommend -- would require a 4 percent boost in water rates every year, according to City Councilman Paul Koretz.

“It’s so much work,” he said. “We have infrastructure in need of replacing at a quicker rate than we have been.”

Many cities and states are in the same rusty boat, having put off investing in bridges, wastewater systems, dams and other public works that need regular maintenance and upgrades. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates the country would have to spend $3.6 trillion to get the nation’s infrastructure in decent working order by 2020.

‘Difficult Politically’

The systems that treat and distribute drinking water in the U.S. need $384 billion in upgrades over the next 20 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, while the National Association of Water Companies says the bill for California is $74 billion.

Those extensive investments for the very long-term aren’t the kind voters are easily persuaded to back, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “Infrastructure is a very difficult thing politically. It’s not the same as putting more cops on the streets.”

New York City has 6,800 miles of water mains and is spending about $716 million on capital improvements this year, while L.A. has 7,225 miles and spends $766 million annually, according to statistics from the two cities.

Existing Resources

About 240 miles of L.A.’s pipes are more than a century old, James McDaniel, senior assistant general manager of the Department of Water and Power, told the the City Council’s energy and environment committee on Aug. 6.

The utility replaces only about 18 miles of pipe per year rather than the 34 miles officials called for in 2012. McDaniel said managers want to be able to replace pipes at a rate of every 170 years -- which would be an improvement over the present change-out pace of every 315 years.

Garcetti, a Democrat elected last year after running on a “back to basics” platform, has said he doesn’t favor tax or water-rate increases to fund improvements, and he hasn’t proposed bond measures. He has said existing resources should be used more wisely.

As for the July 29 rupture, the cause was a bad joint, not an old pipe the city should have replaced, he said. Still, “we pay for this one way or another,” he told reporters Aug. 4. “If a main breaks, that cost comes back to ratepayers.”

Back Seat

When it comes to roadways, car owners pay. L.A. motorists spend an average $832 a year on repairs and other operating costs because of the shabby condition of city streets, according to a 2013 report by TRIP, a Washington-based transportation group. The amount is the highest in the country and 71 percent more than the urban-area average, the report found.

Los Angeles has spent $300 million in the last three years on paving, according to a city audit. The Bureau of Street Services gave about 40 percent of streets grades of D and F. Fixing those 8,200 lane-miles would cost an estimated $4 billion, according to an audit by Controller Ron Galperin.

Englander and fellow Councilman Joe Buscaino had backed a $3 billion road-repair bond measure before withdrawing the idea over concerns it might jeopardize a proposed sales-tax increase on the March 2013 ballot, which failed anyway.

The pair later proposed a half-cent raise in the sales tax, to 9.5 percent, to pay for improving streets and sidewalks. They gave up on that idea in June, saying budget pressures meant infrastructure had to take a back seat. The city should devote what money it has to preventing streets, pipelines and other infrastructure from slipping further into disrepair, Englander said, and apply for state and federal grants.

“Our children will inherit this problem unless we do something about it soon,” he said. “The cost doubles about every 10 years.”

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