Tuesday, September 28, 2021

LA’s Annual $1 Billion Gamble: Spending without a Plan

LA adds to its processes, confusion, and uncertainty due to a lack of a plan to spend nearly $1 Billion each year on roads, sidewalks, trees, access ramps, bus shelters, and more. And the fix is simple and doesn’t require more spending.


Did you know that Los Angeles is the only major US city without a capital infrastructure plan?1 And the reason it matters to you: No one (I mean, no one) has a clear picture of where BILLIONS of public works and transportation funds have gone over the years, and there is no publicly accessible funding plan for past, present or future investments. In short: without a plan, you can be the region with the largest public works program in the nation and you can still have broken, unpassable sidewalks and no viable, reliable, and safe options other than driving.

From our research, we have found that every year in the past few years, at least $700 – $800 million in your tax dollars is dedicated to public works and transportation projects – all without a guiding vision that a capital infrastructure plan would provide. We don’t have this essential guiding document and funding plan, and as a result, we’re not serving the needs of the most vulnerable because we have no means to track where money is being spent.

The truth is: creating such a plan isn’t that difficult. In fact, there is a pending motion from Council President Nury Martinez that can begin to address this.  Council File 21-0039  states:

“Public infrastructure is one of  the most fundamental services the city provides… However, the way these funds are apportioned and implemented is often convoluted and divided between multiple agencies and city departments.”

“The City must take a more unified and holistic approach to planning for infrastructure improvements to ensure equity for all neighborhoods. This includes assessing deficits in the neighborhoods and creating a plan and prioritization list for addressing them. This type of assessment will ensure that the City can better coordinate between city departments with purview over public infrastructure.”

This is an opportunity for the City of Los Angeles to operationalize equity in its Public Works and Transportation departments. The City Council has publicly acknowledged it, and this is where the process gets mired in bureaucracy and in some ways, a power struggle. 

The Council President’s motion instructs the City Administrative Officer (CAO) to prepare a plan to reform the City’s Capital Improvement Expenditure Plan. This was requested in January 2021 — in September 2021, City Staff still has not provided this requested plan.

So, what can we do?

Here are our recommendations for the the top 3 things we need the City of Los Angeles needs to do in the next year to move this important and overdue effort forward:  

  1. Have the City Council and Mayor set a clear unified vision for the future of infrastructure functionality in the City. This is the required first step in creating a Strategic infrastructure plan. The role of the Mayor and City Council is to set vision and governance, and the role of bureaus and departments is to implement it. This requires
    • A single unified vision for Public Works and Transportation from policymakers. For example, the City’s Board of Public Works, manages the Bureau of Public Works, and yet their vision for the next 10 years must include that of other departments that touch the public right of way like the Department of Transportation and LAPD.  This should be grounded in not what the Bureaus and Departments do now, but what they could be doing.
      • Input from stakeholders, especially Neighborhood Councils, that informs the process at the Board of Public Works and City Council.
      • Action by the City Council to vote on a vision document before a plan is developed by the departments.
  2. Be transparent about how much money is annually available to the city for infrastructure work and how it has been and will be spent through the City’s months-long budgeting process. This is accomplished by the Chief Administrative Office (CAO) providing:
    • The key Bureaus and Departments2 working on public infrastructure and the public right of way. 
    • The total figure these departments were allocated in City-controlled funds since FY17 to today.  
    • A breakdown of these figures in operating versus capital dollars.
    • The total funding for each of the following programs since FY17, including funding streams (including grants such as ATP and HSIP) and funding allocations for each department related to it:  
      • Safe Routes to School 
      • Vision Zero
      • Sidewalk Repair Program
      • Urban Forestry (Tree trimming, tree planting, etc.)
      • Complete Streets (work program led by BOE)
      • Street Furniture and Bus stop improvements and access
      • Street Lighting 
      • Metro Bus speed improvements and Dash service 
    • A list or description of any as-yet unfunded strategies and/or programs that would improve coordination between departments and/or public safety, equity, public health, or transportation outcomes in the public right of way.
  3. Direct the Chief Administrative Office (CAO) to address the status of the motion reopened June 2021 (Council File 18-0458) by Councilmembers Bonin, Blumenfield, and Buscaino. This original 2018 motion asked: 

“We further move that the City Administrative Officer and the Chief Legislative Analyst, be directed to report with recommendations on existing street-related functions and divisions of other departments and bureaus that could be transferred to a merged streets & transportation department, to enhance efficiency and better deliver city services to the residents of Los Angeles.”

This motion is directly tied to the issues raised in Council President Martinez’s motion:  

“The way [public works] funds are apportioned and implemented is often convoluted and divided between multiple agencies and city departments.The City’s infrastructure investment is done on an ad-hoc basis and often the critical infrastructure needs in low income communities are ignored.”

With the national attention on infrastructure funding, the moment requires that the second largest city in the Nation create a transparent and accessible Capital Infrastructure Plan.  This can only be realized with an accurate accounting of historic public works and transportation investments. We cannot continue to rely on funding windfalls or lawsuits that fall short in order to provide the basic city services that define our city.

Continue to watch this space for further analysis of this fundamental municipal issue.




  1. The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) “recommends that state and local governments prepare and adopt comprehensive, fiscally sustainable, and multi-year capital plans to ensure effective management of capital assets. A prudent multi-year capital plan identifies and prioritizes expected needs based on a strategic plan, establishes project scope and cost, details estimated amounts of funding from various sources, and projects future operating and maintenance costs. A capital plan should cover a period of at least three years, preferably five or more.” https://www.gfoa.org/materials/multi-year-capital-planning
  2.  So far, we have identified:
    1. Bureau of Engineering
    2. Bureau of Street Lighting
    3. Bureau of Street Services/Streets LA
    4. Bureau of Sanitation
    5. Department of Transportation
    6. And additional programs as identified 

    And while LADWP does public infrastructure work in the public ROW, their work is constrained by a different governance slightly outside of the City services process.

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