By Gary Walker
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure estimated that there is a $549.5 billion shortfall in investments in roads and bridges.
In Mar Vista, a small group of residents were considering last year how they could secede, or break away, from the city of Los Angeles due to what they say is a lack of concern from their city representatives for their local streets, curbs, municipal buildings and sidewalks.
The state of the city’s networks of roads, pipelines and sewers is of major concern to many Westside residents, including those in Council District 11, which includes Venice, Playa del Rey, Westchester, Del Rey and Mar Vista.
The Argonaut hosted an infrastructure roundtable on March 21 with representatives from the Department of Water and Power, a city Board of Public Works commissioner and a representative of Councilman Bill Rosendahl’s office in order to get a sense of the condition of the city’s electrical and water networks, as well as the state of its infrastructure and what it will cost to repair it.
Susan Rowghani and Eric Hartman spoke about the DWP’s water infrastructure and the agency’s power systems, respectively, including what new plans the agency has regarding them.
DWP officials say the agency is in the process of identifying the most seriously degraded areas of its infrastructure and has refurbished a great deal of it, but acknowledged that they are behind schedule and have made assessments of DWP’s current and future tasks.
Q: Would it be fair to say that in some areas of the city the DWP’s infrastructure is 50, 60 years old or more?
SR: We have pipes in the downtown area that are at least 90 years old, but there is newer pipeline in other areas. You can sort of trace how the city grew by looking at when the pipeline was put in. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a lot and after that there was less, so you can see how the city developed.
Q: Can you talk a little about the state of the DWP’s water infrastructure?
SR: We have 72,000 miles of pipeline in the city of Los Angeles. Some of our infrastructure is old and we have replaced a lot of it further north of the city. It’s not cheap to replace and it will take several millions of dollars.
We are behind in replacing our pipeline but we are ramping up. A lot of people look at our (pipeline) and say, ‘It’s old, so we must have to replace it.’ Age is a factor, but there are other things that you look at to make a determination.
When you replace pipelines and trunklines, there have to be planning studies, which then moves to design. Then it goes to the construction phase and depending how important it is, it can take two to three years for construction.
Q: What about the type of pipeline that you are using? Is any of the material that was used now outdated?
SR: What we typically use for the smaller pipes is called ductile pipe, which is for smaller mains. Before, we used to use cast iron pipe but we don’t use that anymore because it’s kind of brittle. In areas where there is high pressure we use ductile pipe.
In the Venice area, we did a pilot program to put in PVC pipe because the Venice area has a very high water table and it’s also seawater, which is corrosive.
We also have another pilot program where we’re installing ductile earthquake resistant pipe from Japan. They’ve used it in Japan for 40 years and in the entirety of the 40 years that it’s been in, they’ve not had leaks.
Q: Eric, what about the infrastructure from the power side? How would you assess it?
EH: We’re going through a very large transformation right now to get off of coal. We have approximately 26 receiving stations and 120 distributing stations throughout the city.
We’ve been on a large replacement program with our electricity poles. Some of them have been in place for a very long time and they need to be replaced.
Because of the proximity to the ocean and the seawater, some of the transformers near the Venice/Silver Strand area in the water are corroding way faster than they should be. So we’re replacing them with a different kind of transformer that is designed to be underwater all the time in the saltwater environment. We should have three or four transformers replaced by July.
Q: What about the Scattergood Generating Station (in Playa del Rey near the Hyperion Treatment Plant) – are there any plans for renovation there?
EH: We are going to replace Unit Three at Scattergood because the state has mandated that we get all of our coastal plants off of what is called ‘once through cooling,’ a process that uses ocean water to cool as part of the generating cycle.
The goal is to have this facility up and running by December 2015. The cost at Scattergood, just for Unit Three, is at least a $800-900 million job.
The important thing is that we need these gas-fired plants and to get to renewables and away from coal, which represents a fairly large percentage of our current energy mix.
Los Angeles Public Works Commissioner Steven Nutter discussed the state of the city’s streets, sidewalks and curbs and the city’s plans to repair them.
Q: While a large percentage of the city’s streets, curbs, alleys and sidewalks are in need of repair, it is quite visible in places in District 11 such as Sepulveda Boulevard in Westchester, Centinela Avenue in Mar Vista and Pacific Avenue in Venice. How would you assess the condition of District 11’s infrastructure and what Public Works has done recently?
SN: I’m a Westside kid. I grew up in Westchester and I live in Venice, so this is turf that I know and care a great deal about. Because of the (economic downturn that began at the end of 2007), the city has had to shrink its workforce by more than 3,000. The city’s general fund, which is relied upon to fund all improvements in sidewalks and roads, went through the floor, but (Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa) has worked hard to scrape together enough resources to pave 800 miles this year.
The city has essentially had to triage by using slurry seal, which is like a thin coat of asphalt, to cover the roads that are salvageable, and we use a computerized program to determine how best to do that throughout the city.
The city’s Board of Public Works spends at least $600 million a year on capital improvements and some of those are funded by special funds from the sewer fees account.
Q: A proposal by Councilman Mitchell Englander for a bond measure that would have paid for sidewalk repair died before it had was discussed by the City Council. Is a bond measure the best approach to repair sidewalks and curbs?
SN: Currently the sidewalks and the roads would have to be built with general fund money, which means that it’s money that isn’t earmarked for special use by one of the departments. We’re a number of years behind in fixing the sidewalks because we’ve not had the funds to do them.
So it will take some special revenue raising in order to be able to fix the sidewalks or it would require the obligation to be shifted back to the homeowner. It’s a bill that will be billions of dollars, whether it’s paid for by the city or the homeowner.
Councilman Rosendahl called on all city departments to produce infrastructure compliance reports on Sept. 23, 2010 less than two weeks after a Pacific, Gas and Electric natural gas explosion in the Northern California suburb of San Bruno.
John Gregory, Rosendahl’s legislative deputy, talked about the council office’s role from a legislative position regarding what the city’s plans are in case of an emergency similar to the San Bruno explosion. Gregory was in charge of the legislative effort of the departmental compliance review.
Q: Did the departments comply with the councilman’s request, and how does the city respond in the event of a terrorist attack, an earthquake or other natural disasters?
JG: Immediately after San Bruno there were concerns and we wanted to look at our pipeline infrastructure, including natural gas, jet fuel and other petroleum products that are flowing under our city’s streets and homes. We brought forward a group of individuals from various entities, including the California Public Utilities Commission, the Gas Company, the Fire Department and Emergency Management for a 90-minute discussion in council about what procedures are in place (in case of an incident similar to what happened in San Bruno).
Q: What are DWP’s contingency plans in case of a natural disaster or an explosion?
SR: We have in place a water system emergency response plan, as does power and that’s tied into the city emergency operations facility. And each division in water has its own emergency response plan. In our division, one of the things that we will be doing is that we will have people going out to inspect our dams, especially in the case of a seismic event. We would be looking at our pump stations and for leaks in our infrastructure.
If there is a natural disaster, these (emergency systems) are activated. We have certain people assigned to certain roles in terms of how we respond and we all need to coordinate because if we have something like a seismic event, it’s not only water that’s going to be affected, it’s also gas, and police and fire are going to be out there as well.
EH: We have cooperative agreements with various agencies, so we’re able to draw from their resources in the event of a seismic event, just as DWP helped out New York during Hurricane Sandy. We sent crews back east for several weeks.
SN: In the event of an earthquake, the city’s Bureau of Engineering will be going out and looking at our bridges. Our Bureau of Sanitation will be going out and inspecting Hyperion. We have these measures in place.
I have a red binder in my car that that tells me where I have to go in the city in case of a seismic event.
Q: Have budget restraints, which you mentioned earlier, affected those plans at all, as they pertain to emergency personnel?
SN: When we face the emergency, we’re going to go to it with the staff that the city has chosen to give us with the budget that they have given us. We can always use more: we can use more building inspectors, but if there’s a seismic event, there won’t be enough, depending on the size of the event; the same with engineers.
But we’re fortunate to be a city that is not dependent on outsiders for our power or in terms of our ability to inspect buildings.
JG: Since the 1994 (Northridge) earthquake, every city department has its own emergency response plan. But the city has operated under the premise that in the event of a large earthquake, resources are going to be overtaxed and people are going to have to be dependent on themselves for a while, perhaps up to 72 hours. As far as being ready, we’ve done a lot.
Q: Commissioner, the shortfall cited by the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2009 Report Card sounds like a lot. Is it?
SN: It is. And we also have decaying electrical and water systems, decaying roads and sewers. But the real plus is if we invest in this now, it pays for me, for my children and my children’s children. This investment, if done right, will last.
We have an opportunity to do two things: to build for the future and to provide economic opportunity with a local stimulus program for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and for people in targeted neighborhoods where the unemployment rate is very high.
And the great thing about this is construction costs are down now and the cost to build things over time going forward is going to increase.
So the time is right now for us to educate the public about the need to reinvest in our community.
Q: John, can you address the delicate balance that your office has to navigate legislatively, taking into account the fiscal realities regarding the need to rebuild the city’s infrastructure as well as the political necessities?
JG: The primary cost-drivers in the city are employee salaries and benefits, so that leaves very little money to focus on capital finance issues like our capital improvement expenditure program, which we’ve virtually eliminated over the last four years.
From the policy side, it’s a challenge. Our ability to build and generate revenue is really dependent on the electorate and their desire to tax themselves.
There seems to be more interest in putting a tangible benefit to those costs, so bond measures generally have a good history of passing.
That’s really what the challenge is, finding that balance in the city between our revenues and our expenditures. There are a lot of things to balance.