Wednesday, December 20, 2017

How can we Fix our Right-of-Way, the Right Way?

The following post summarizes a portion of a CAO FUSE fellow report released last month that recommends ways to improve infrastructure agencies operations and services in the City of Los Angeles. This post also includes our initial reactions to the report’s most impactful “Tier 1” recommendations: a) relocating the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) into the Department of Public Works (DPW), and b) creating a citywide Office of Infrastructure Management. We will share similar posts analyzing the report’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 recommendations shortly.


Have you ever seen this image of the Los Angeles street and sidewalk — and the mosaic of different City agencies that are responsible for the different parts? (Hint: we blogged about it earlier this month!)

Source: DIY Great Streets Manual, Mayor’s Office


This image may not matter much–until you need to get a pothole repaired, or a crosswalk or bus shelter installed, or a broken sidewalk fixed. Then what do you do? And when will it happen? Will it happen at all?


We need to Stop Trippin’

It is not a secret that the City of Los Angeles struggles with project delivery of basic infrastructure maintenance and repairs. Our current Mayor Eric Garcetti successfully campaigned on prioritizing “back-to-basics” maintenance before being elected in 2013. In 2015 the City settled a $1.4 billion class action lawsuit, known as the “Willits settlement,” because Los Angeles sidewalks were found to be not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines. And in a report shared last month by the City’s Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), a constituent survey found that residents gave City delivery of public works services (including sidewalk and street repair) a score of 3.5 out of 10.

This report, “Evaluation of the State of Street Related Infrastructure Programs in Los Angeles,” written by FUSE fellow Laila Alequresh, is well-researched with strong historical context. Its key finding could be summed up in that image of the Los Angeles sidewalk and street above: so many City agencies influence each part of our public rights-of-way and infrastructure. But these agencies do not operate from shared visions/missions and coordinated workplans. The City’s inability to keep up with basic maintenance issues on sidewalks and streets is especially challenging given that both residents and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) rank sidewalk repair as the city service in need of most improvement, in the report’s surveys.

This is an exciting first step. The City of Los Angeles needs to reassess and refine how our public rights-of-way are managed, maintained, and improved. And the current practice of excluding sidewalks and crosswalks from broader transportation and mobility planning removes the walking/rolling experience from our new Los Angeles transportation revolution. So what now?


If we all agree on the problem, what is the solution?

The FUSE report identifies the need for improved coordination and communication between the City’s seven infrastructure agencies: Department of Transportation (DOT); Department of Water & Power (DWP); and the Department of Public Works (DPW), comprised of five Bureaus, Contract Administration (BCA) Engineering (BOE), Sanitation (BOS), Street Lighting (BSL), and Street Services (BSS). Based on employee surveys, the report found a “universal belief that better planning and coordination across Bureau siloes and beyond is absolutely necessary.”

The report proposes two “Tier 1” recommendations, which are ranked highest of all report recommendations on a scale of impact, cost, and longevity:

  • Move DOT under the Department of Public Works as a sixth Bureau.
  • Create an Office of Infrastructure Management (OIM) within the Board of Public Works

The primary idea supporting the Tier 1 recommendations is that by transferring all street-related agencies under the same governing body, different transportation and infrastructure services and projects will benefit from improved coordination and communication, which will lead to better delivery of city services for constituents.


People who make music together cannot be enemies (at least while the music lasts)

On paper, these recommendations make sense. It is logical that the various agencies that work on street and sidewalks should be housed in the same administrative body. As the report states, this should lead to better project and delivery of services.

However, this logic only applies if the inter-bureau coordination and communication of the current Public Works Bureaus work well together towards shared missions. The report quotes current Public Works employees that point to competition, rather than collaboration, between Bureaus. Nearly the entire existing conditions research in the report demonstrates that there is much needed improvement to achieve streamlined, successful coordination between the Public Works Bureaus.

What if someone had suggested Justin Bieber join the boy band One Direction? Both the solo artist and the group dominated pop charts and enjoyed fans from similar demographics. But, as we saw One Direction disband in recent years, there is also a strong logic that any group needs a strong foundation before adding a new member.

We are not convinced that the Tier 1 recommendation of moving the entire Department of Transportation into the Public Works as a sixth Bureau will solve the report’s identified problems of misaligned missions and uncoordinated project delivery. As a standalone department, DOT has a different culture of managing and delivering projects than the Public Works Bureaus. And the current lack of coordination within existing Public Works Bureaus does not reflect an existing best practice of interagency coordination and streamlined communication. The report does not demonstrate any evidence as to why this restructuring would assuredly lead to better interagency infrastructure coordination.

Also important, DOT is the City leader in mobility and safety, pushing Mayor’s Executive Directive #10 and departmental priority Vision Zero: the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero by 2025. However, safety for all road users has not currently proven to be a top priority for Public Works Bureaus. A focus on safety and the impact that street design can have on our lives is also not highlighted in the FUSE report, which focuses almost exclusively on needed maintenance and repairs. For instance, the report rightly points out that infrastructure services should be based on residents’ needs, not grant opportunities. But responding to residents’ maintenance needs requires different systems and planning than designing a 7,500-mile street network (and 11,000 miles of a sidewalks) for saving lives. What happens when the leading voice to reduce traffic fatalities in Los Angeles is tucked into a six-Bureau entity that has not demonstrated a similar commitment to safety?

Before approving a major interagency restructuring, which would have a huge citywide administrative and budgetary impact, we recommend identifying more concrete evidence and proven strategies to improve coordination between the seven City infrastructure Departments and Bureaus.


Why buy when we can (potentially) fix?

The second Tier 1 recommendation proposes creating an Office of Infrastructure Management (OIM), housed in the Board of Public Works (BPW), the 5-member commission with governing authority over the Public Works Bureaus. The proposed OIM could potentially serve as a much-needed connecting body between the various infrastructure agencies’ work plans, missions, and projects. This also seems like an ambitious City restructuring that would require amending the City Administrative Code with little evidence of why this would work better than the existing BPW alone. Without intentional and strategic leadership input from all impacted infrastructure agencies, it is possible that this proposed office could become an additional bureaucratic hurdle staffed by City employees who are not authorized to make broader policy decision or recommendations.

As discussed above, “infrastructure” issues like sidewalks and street furniture are routinely separated from “mobility and transportation” safety planning, even though these are critical components to the path of travel for people walking and rolling. And the report uses the example of the City’s 2015-adopted General Plan mobility element, Mobility Plan 2035, never being vetted by the Board of Public Works or Public Works Council Committee. We ask if there are incremental and measured steps to address this disconnect in place of creating a new office.

The report points out the absence of a citywide capital expenditure plan in Los Angeles. Departments and bureaus have their own plans, but these are also not always coordinated. As a potential first step, the BPW Commissioners might oversee development of a 5-year citywide coordinated capital expenditure plan (we see you, Tier 2!). It may also be worth exploring if relevant staff from the Department of City Planning (DCP) who track transportation-related grant opportunities should be included in this work.

Aligning efforts to increase coordination and accountability for projects in the right-of-way may also present opportunities to shift specific programs and tasks between agencies. We also recommend a further assessment of the infrastructure agency work plans to identify programs that may make sense to restructure. Revising agency work plans could potentially deliver a higher return on efficiency and less administrative and budget impacts than moving entire departments.


Let’s fix our right-of-way the right way

The FUSE report is a significant unveiling of our City’s inter-agency challenges and proposes recommendations that intend to address these challenges. It is a critical for the City of Los Angeles to address these challenges soon, particularly with new local and statewide transportation funding and infrastructure opportunities.

The needs identified by the report to improve coordination and provide an oversight entity for all street-related projects are warranted. But tangible and realistic improvements such as a comprehensive mobility plan that incorporates both the Public Works’ jurisdiction of the sidewalks and all infrastructure agencies’ management of the streets might be possible at a lower cost.

The Tier 1 recommendations are self-identified as large in scale, impact, and potentially in cost. We ask: do they have to be? We ask: are these the right moves?

We look forward to seeing this report discussed further by the City in 2018 and will share our further analysis of the Tier 2 and Tier 3 recommendations of the report shortly.

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