More and more, the streets of Los Angeles have been looking positively post-apocalyptic, lined as they are with deep gashes and potholes large enough to raise a family of ducks in comfort. Not to worry though, City Hall is here to help. And by help, we mean that they want to raise taxes. 

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana and Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller  today called for a 15-year-long, half-cent sales tax hike to raise $4.5 billion to fix Los Angeles' crumbling sidewalks and “failed streets.” If their idea gets approved by the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti, the city would then place it on the November ballot, where 2/3 of L.A. voters would have to vote Yes to make it law. The term “failed streets” has been creeping into our lexicon as of late. Picture territory in a civil war-ravaged country, teetering on collapse, ceding territory to the rebel army:
These are streets that are so bad, the city has decided that it would be prohibitively expensive to fix or maintain them.

Just how much roadway has the city conceded to the ravages of entropy? Quite a lot – 36 percent of all streets, more than a third of L.A.'s ample driving surface, are “failed streets.”

Right now, the city gives every single street, big or small, a letter grade, A through F. Streets that get an A, B or C are maintained.

As for streets that get a D or F, the city just sort of shrugs and adds it to its Amazon wish list. Failed streets have simply been written off, pending a large infusion of cash from the federal government Santa Claus taxpayers.

“We just don't have the budget for them right now,” says Kevin James, president of the Board of Public Works. “It makes more economic sense to maintain an A, B or C street.”

Only problem is, the more we let those Ds and Fs go, the more expensive to fix they become. How expensive? Failed streets cost between $650,000 and $2.5 million per mile to repair.

The modern street has three layers: a base layer, a binding layer and the driving surface, usually only a few inches thick. Maintaining a street is easy and relatively cheap.

But when the base layer needs to be repaired, that's when things get really expensive. That's what the city has decided not to do. Until now. Maybe.

Enter newish City Councilmen Joe Buscaino (a former cop and aw shucks just a nice guy) and Mitch Englander (an LAPD reservist whose uncle is a top lobbyist), who first proposed a $3 billion bond measure to be paid for by a temporary property tax hike last year. Homeowners and Neighborhood Councils were none too pleased at that idea.

“The problem here is we don't have that many options in terms of ways to raise revenue,” says Dennis Gleason, a policy advisor to Buscaino. “The most fair way would be to somehow charge drivers a use fee, but as a local government we don't have the authority to do so.”

Westchester's obstacle course: A year ago, then-City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Congresswoman Maxine Waters announced they were fixing it.; Credit: Megan Diskin

Westchester's obstacle course: A year ago, then-City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Congresswoman Maxine Waters announced they were fixing it.; Credit: Megan Diskin

Now Santana is weighing in with: oh wait, how about a sales tax hike instead, and how about a bit more money to fix L.A. sidewalks, 40 percent of which are seriously jacked up.

Santana's reasoning is that a sales tax would take money from a broader selection of people – not just homeowners, but anyone who uses the L.A. streets, including out-of-towners. And unlike raising the money by selling bonds, the city wouldn't have to pay any interest. 

On the downside, a sales tax is the most regressive of its kind – it arguably hurts poor people more than rich people, since they spend a greater part of their disposable income on everyday needs. And Los Angeles already has a 1.5-cent sales tax on top of the statewide sales tax of 7.5 cents per dollar. 

“At least from my boss's perspective, we just want to fix this problem,” says Gleason.

According to the report, the average household in the city of L.A. would pay an extra $91 dollars a year (or 25 cents per day) should the plan get approved. Of the $4.5 billion raised, $3.86 billion would go toward fixing L.A.'s failed streets, which wouldn't even begin until 2018 (!) while $640 million would go to sidewalks, which may not even be enough.

Mayor Garcetti has yet to weigh in on the proposal, but he has told KPCC that he would only support a ballot measure if he thought it could pass.

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