Updated after the jump: CalTrans says this study is a wakeup call for the federal government.

L.A. potholes just got so small-fry.

New numbers are out on the deteriorating state of the nation's bridges, and California's system is looking especially dismal. Frightening, even. [Full Transformation for America study can be found here].

We counted about 60 failing bridges in the central circle of Los Angeles County on the study's interactive map. Of these, on a scale of 1 to 10, a few have “deck” ratings of 2 (basically on the verge of collapse), and a handful have structural ratings of 4. Here are the two most worrisome spots:

Interstate 10 over Normandie Avenue

• Interstate 10 where it intersects with the 5, the 60 and the 101

Both bridges are hit with over 300,000 cars per day. (Just imagine being on there when the Big One arrives. Shudder.)

“Californa generally, and L.A. in particular, stand out [in the study],” says Transportation for America spokesman David Goldberg. “There's a huge need with your bridges there.”

He goes on to explain our downfall: “You bought into the freeway lifestyle early, and you built the whole civilization around it.”

Indeed we did, in the 1940s and 1950s, when freeways were seen as progressive rather than smoggy and clogged. But when current Governor Jerry Brown took office — the first time, in the 1970s — he prioritized social services and unionized wages over infrastructure spending.

Ever since then, California's mess of original freeways have been supplemented by neither the expensive repair system they require nor additional roads to shoulder some of the wear and tear. Bad combo, all around.

In the words of Joel Kotkin:

“Jerry Brown turned out to be of a very different political hue than his father. Sometimes he sounded more anti-government even than Reagan. He disdained his father's traditional focus on infrastructure spending and instead preached about amore environmentally friendly “era of limits.” Brown cut the percentage of spending on such capital improvements from roughly 10% of state spending under Reagan to barely 5%, where it remains mired today.”

Governors Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger upped road spending a bit, but not nearly enough to reach the “estimated $500 billion California needs to build new and replace worn-out infrastructure,” according to the much-respected Little Hoover Commission.

According to Goldberg, CalTrans — the agency in charge of maintaining California's bridges — receives some federal money for highway repair, but the “pressure to build new stuff is really great, because politicians love ribbon-cutting.”

Then there's our whole financial crisis, with Governor Brown at the helm once again.

We're waiting to hear back from CalTrans on their procedure for bridge repair, and the financial challenges that might be preventing a sound standard for safety. In the meantime, let us know if you've noticed any particular problems around Los Angeles — lord knows they're not too hard to find.

Update: CalTrans spokesman Matt Rocco, at the NorCal headquarters, says nobody should be too alarmed — “If a bridge was not safe, we would shut it down.”

Here's the official CalTrans response to the bad-bridge study:

“Caltrans has a robust bridge management program in place, which includes the inspection, maintenance, and preservation of 24,000 state and local bridges to ensure our state bridges are safe. Bridges are a vital link in moving goods across the nation and play a critical role in California's economic recovery, but protecting this valuable asset is becoming a challenge due to the effects of age and increasing demand.

Additional federal transportation resources will allow California to deliver more bridge improvements to keep millions of motorists and billions of dollars of commerce moving. California needs a continued, stable and reliable long-term investment strategy from the federal government that can support the state's highways and bridges to provide the continued safety of motorists and support economic activity.”

Rocco says that though he finds Transportation for America's choice of wording — “structurally deficient” — a bit dramatic, it served its purpose, because “there is a need for a stable source of funding.”

So are the bridges safe, or what?

While we probably won't be falling through the cracks for now, unless some financial priorities change on both the federal and local level — the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority notoriously puts subways over the existing road system, even though L.A. cars aren't going anywhere, with or without a subway — our ailing bridge (and highway) system could be in for major collapse.

Further reading: Governor Jerry Brown's 2011 budget proposal.

Originally posted March 30 at 1:40 p.m.


LA Weekly