Motorists heading north and south bound in the vicinity of Los Angeles International Airport will soon no longer be forced to endure stretches of darkness between Westchester and the South Bay.

The Sepulveda Tunnel, a passageway used by hundreds of cars daily, is the recipient of $3.5 million in upgrades that will include lighting, a regular power washing schedule and ventilation repair.

The enhancements were announced June 10 by Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who gave credit to a variety of city agencies as well as to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and state Assemblywoman Betsy Butler (D-Marina del Rey) for their roles in making the improvements possible.

The $3.5 million comes from a gasoline tax fund.

“This is great news from a safety and fiscal standpoint,” said Rosendahl. “The appropriation will use existing gas taxes and install a new, state-of-the-art LED lighting system that’s brighter, more reliable and much easier to maintain than the current system we have now.”

Governments are frequently turning to LED (light emitting diode) lighting due to its advantages over incandescent light sources, including lower energy consumption and longer lifetime.

Money for the tunnel lighting is part of the municipal budget recently signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

The funding will address one frequent complaint from Rosendahl’s constituents, which is the lack of visibility in the tunnel due to nonfunctioning lights, as well as debris scattered along the four lanes of traffic.

The councilman gave credit to the city Bureau of Sanitation and the Bureau of Street Services for their assistance in bringing the project forward and working with his and Butler’s office in crafting the agreement for the tunnel initiative.

Butler said one of the prime motivators for her to move the improvements forward was a personal experience of driving through the Sepulveda Tunnel in darkness, and at times encountering a backup due to one lane not being in use.

“I knew that if I was frustrated, then constituents must be frustrated,” she said.

Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, was also involved as the project took shape.

“LAWA provided Councilman Rosendahl and his staff with information about who maintains the tunnel, problem areas, suggested fixes, and has met with (him) and his staff and the other responsible city agencies on this subject,” LAWA spokeswoman Nancy Castles told The Argonaut.

The agency met with the other city agencies and Caltrans to develop a comprehensive maintenance program for the tunnel including replacement of the failing lighting system, Castles added.

“Given the critical nature of the tunnel, LAWA had concerns about the negative customer experience for airport visitors the tunnel generates due to its present condition,” she said.

Westchester resident Renate Hilde said she is pleased about the power washing aspect of the project. She cited the accumulation of dirt and graffiti on the tunnel’s walls as an example of the lack of maintenance in recent years.

“It’s not a good impression when you come to the airport as a business traveler or tourist,” she said. “It’s not a good calling card.”

There are still some logistics and other details that are in the process of being defined. “We’re moving on putting together a schedule for maintenance, repair and operation that promises to keep this gateway to Los Angeles clean and well lit for years to come,” said Rosendahl.

During the course of meetings with the various agencies, it was discovered that there are four different agencies with maintenance responsibilities: Caltrans, which maintains the roadway and storm water drainage system; the Bureau of Street Services, which handles sweeping and streets cleaning; Bureau of Street Lighting, which maintains the lighting systems; and General Services, which works on the air ventilation system.

“These agencies did not have a coordinated maintenance program and were all feeling the impacts of reduced maintenance budgets,” said Castles.

Butler said it was not uncommon to find similar situations in government, but praised everyone involved for taking the project seriously. “All the city agencies were very responsive,” she said.

LAWA officials feel that the process for implementing the enhancements and determining each agency’s responsibilities highlighted some of the complexities involved when multiple agencies of government have specific duties for a segment of the city’s infrastructure.

“There is a need for better coordination among the agencies that have a shared responsibility to keep the tunnel clean and well lit,” Castles said.

The city issued a memorandum of understanding with LAWA, Caltrans and the other two city departments, which are under the Department of Public Works. The agencies have agreed to be responsible for tunnel upkeep, sweeping and maintaining the roadway, and power washing the walls and ceiling, according to the councilman’s office.

Rosendahl said the enhancements are essential to the tunnel because of what it represents to the region. “It’s part of the gateway to Southern California for automobiles and airplanes,” he said. “This is an example of government at its best, with coordination at the city and the state level.”

Castles gave Rosendahl’s office credit for its role in developing the blueprint for the tunnel enhancements.

“The lighting project will make a big difference and the Bureau of Street Lighting has been proactive in developing the lighting project and seeking needed funds. Council District 11 played a key role as a catalyst for the progress being made,” she said.

Castles said there are other intrinsic benefits to the project, echoing Rosendahl.

“The primary purpose for the Sepulveda Tunnel Improvement Project is safety. An important secondary benefit is that the tunnel is considered one of the ‘gateways’ to LAX,” the LAWA spokeswoman noted. “If it looks bad – not just lighting but dirty – then the LAX visitor going through the tunnel starts off with a bad perception of the airport and the city as a whole.”

Butler said despite the obstacles of multiple agencies, it is up to lawmakers to provide leadership. “That’s what elected officials are supposed to do,” she said.

The light installation is expected to take place in the summer of 2012. According to the memorandum of understanding, the tunnel power washing will take place quarterly and sweeping will take place on a monthly basis.

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