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Expensive to fix

The recent water main break on Sunset should remind us how costly Los Angeles is – and will be – to maintain.

The main was 93 years old. Some connections and valves might be just as old.

The repairs to the infrastructure and the surrounding properties will run well into the millions. I would not be surprised if the repair cost for Pauley Pavilion could amount to one-fourth the $136-million renovation price tag in 2012. If you factor in loss of use and revenue, the vehicles in the garages, my guess may be in the ballpark, or at least the basketball court.

It was if the Los Angeles River was restored to its natural and wild state, but right through Westwood.

Someone is going to pay, and it won’t be Brian D’Arcy and his well-compensated IBEW brethren.

Even if the city’s insurance covers most of the repairs for UCLA and Westwood, just think of what it will do to future risk premiums.

If this were a one-time event, we would suck it up and move on.

But how many such potential disasters lurk?

What if the Red Line tunnel was inundated? A parking garage in Century City? Another fire truck in Valley Village?

The liability associated with the city’s aging infrastructure is not just about the materials and labor required to replace water mains and power lines; the cost for personal property damage and possible loss of life could easily dwarf that of all other components.

If you consider the costs of repairing streets and sidewalks, upgrading public transportation and paying for the ever-growing retirement benefits of city employees, Los Angeles might become too expensive for the average resident in the not too distant future.

To be fair, Los Angeles is not the only city in the nation facing this problem, but there is little solace in that fact.

Think of it as living in the same house for many years. You go through a long period with little in the way of replacement costs, but eventually age catches up. You procrastinate on major repairs, perhaps squeezing more life out of the roof. Then a 50-year storm hits and it collapses.

Many cities are well past the low maintenance portion of their lives; Los Angeles is one of them.

How many residents will opt to move outside the city limits, if not the state, rather than bear the costs?

The Orange Line busway has been a huge success, especially when you consider the comparatively low construction costs versus what was incurred for light rail systems serving the region.

Ridership tripled to 22,000 per weekday in its first year of operation in 2005. Weekday boardings are currently at 25,873, down about 2,000 from a year ago, but still impressive.

I have ridden the Orange Line between North Hollywood and Woodland Hills on a few occasions. It was comfortable, reliable, affordable and beat driving on the 101.

But its capacity is also getting maxed out.

Despite the slight drop in ridership, the buses are crowded most of the time. Waves of riders exit at the North Hollywood station and swarm the Red Line platform for the connection to downtown. I might add that the Red Line fills up quickly during the morning rush.

Upgrading to higher passenger capacity light rail makes sense, then, but not without modifications to the right-of-way and the parking facilities serving the passengers.

At-grade crossings are the bane of any railroad. The potential for collisions between trains and vehicles is ever-present; therefore, the trains (or buses, in the case of the Orange Line) must decelerate when approaching an intersection between the tracks and a street. That’s time lost. On a system with many stops, it adds up to several minutes which can make the difference in making a more timely connection. Let’s face it, a very important consideration in deciding to use public transportation is timeliness and trip duration. That’s why regular buses will never be an attractive alternative for commuters.

How do we deal with the at-grade crossings?

Grade separation, where either the roadways or the tracks are elevated or lowered at the crossings, is expensive in congested, residential or commercial areas. An excellent example of grade separation is where the Union Pacific tracks cross Van Nuys Boulevard. The roadway dips below the railroad right-of-way. When it was designed, there was ample real estate to work with. Try doing that today at, let’s say, Laurel Canyon in Valley Village where it crosses the busway. A big chunk of Valley Village’s commercial zone would cease to exist.

It would be impractical and chaotic to cut off certain north-south streets in the Valley to facilitate train speed.

Installing automatic crossing arms would be the safest approach, but I could just hear the howls of protests.

I suggest a warning light system which would start flashing many yards before the crossings. For example, lights would be placed on streets about a half-block before the tracks. They would begin flashing in advance of a train’s approach. Of course, the regular traffic lights would still exist and function as they do today. This system would not be 100% effective – you will always find those who attempt to run lights. You cannot fix stupid, but it would be safer than it is today and allow trains to maintain speeds without adding to the risk of accidents.

To increase ridership the MTA will need to add parking at the Orange Line stations, particularly the lot that serves the junction of the Red and Orange Lines in North Hollywood. Quite frankly, I grew tired of County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s unfulfilled promises to add parking in North Hollywood, but what does he care now.

Commuters will still depend on their cars (or, for a few, bikes) to reach the stations. They are not going to spend countless minutes waiting for a Metro bus that may never arrive anywhere close to schedule.

People will also need shuttle transportation when they exit the Orange Line, at least those not transferring to the Red Line. It’s not fun to walk a mile in sweltering heat or driving rain to reach your place of business, store, etc.

A fleet of courtesy buses needs to circulate regularly and often in the vicinity of the stops to deliver riders reasonably close to their intended destinations. This is true for all of MTA’s rail lines.

This will cost money, but unless these measures are taken, it does not pay to convert the busway to light rail. The ridership will not increase substantially.

It was not unusual for the most powerful or influential Russian czars to have a moniker: Catherine the Great, Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible, to name a few.

Following in this tradition, Russia now has Putin the Sociopath.

If there were any doubts about V. Putin’s state of mind, the destruction of Malaysia Air Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine should quash them. It is not just his outright denial of responsibility in the face of growing intelligence that he has armed pro-Russia rebels and provided technical training, stirred the pot by keeping a large force on the border with Ukraine and failed to dial down the rhetoric about a “fascist” government in Kiev, but he blames Ukraine for the tragedy that murdered 298 men, women, children and infants.

Mario Puzo’s Michael Corleone was a novice sociopath compared to the ex-KGB hack in the Kremlin. Although he lied about giving the order to kill his own brother-in-law and viewed the murder of his rivals as “strictly business,” at least the young Godfather did not kill innocent people.

Putin effectively pulled the trigger of the surface-to-air missile by encouraging the chaos and bloodshed that heretofore was primarily directed at combat units. Even if the Russian operatives on the ground did not intend to shoot down a civilian airliner – traveling at a non threatening altitude of 33,000 feet – Putin must answer for the deaths.

What is just as repulsive are those in the United States who actually admire this butcher.

Why do they?

For many of them it is about President Obama. Since Putin made him appear weak in the Syrian chemical weapon confrontation, he instantly became a hero in the eyes of the lunatic fringe. For what it is worth, Obama shot himself in the foot with his “red line” threat. Nevertheless, Putin has become a rock star in their eyes. These Americans are blinded by rage and hate.

President Obama’s international policies have been largely embarrassing over the last two years, but he has done a decent job of dealing with the crisis in Ukraine. He has been in no position to be too aggressive with sanctions because the EU countries, who rely heavily on Russia’s natural gas, have responded timidly lest they jeopardize their energy supplies. Without firm support from our major European allies, US sanctions will have little effect.

This may change. Europe cannot ignore the gravity of this senseless act and Putin’s attempt to cover up the role he played.

Putin must pay a price. The Russian people who support him must also feel pain. They keep this brute in power. Until they wake up and end his regime, they will also have blood on their hands.

Do the math

The Police Protective League announced that a majority of the 9,900 LAPD officers it represents rejected a contract extension. The extension would have denied most officers a raise, but would have considerably increased the budget to pay officers for overtime rather than defer it.

The deferral of overtime was a bad idea to begin with. It only backloaded a greater burden upon officers’ retirements. But that’s besides the point.

The objective of the city is to hold down raises in order to minimize the cost of retirement benefits. Retirement costs for fire and police have shot up from $175 million in 2005 to $626 million currently (a straight 29% per year over the base period), and will continue to grow. The Los Angeles Times reported the annual cost will reach $710 million in two years.

The contract rejection came on top of a challenge to the 2012 City Council decision to offer lower benefits to new civilian employees. The Employee Relations Board will now have to deliberate over whether the new tier violated labor laws.

The cost of civilian retirement cost have grown from $260 million in 2005 to $410 million, a 6% per year annual increase over the base year.

In the aggregate, combined retirement costs have grown by 15% per year since 2005.

We simply cannot afford to maintain that pace.

If employees want to maintain gold-plated benefits, they must contribute more.

The alternative is a reduction in services. Everyone loses in that scenario.

It is highly likely the rate of increase will get worse. People are living longer and will require more care.

The city is in a race to the bottom. How long before the residents and businesses wake up and realize they will increasingly pay more for less?

Unsocial Media

About three years ago, I stopped posting my politically oriented articles on my Facebook timeline. Nothwithstanding many of these articles were about local issues in Los Angeles and, therefore, would not be relevant to many of my friends scattered on the east coast, I did not want to force my opinions on others’ news feeds.

Instead, I post most of them on Facebook Groups dealing with the issues. If the related threads devolve into a food fight, at least they are confined to the cafeteria and not the hallways.

Facebook has increasingly become a soapbox for a hardcore group of users who share their ideological rants multiple times a day. Free speech is vital to our society, but someone moving the soap box from the street to another’s porch goes beyond being social. People have a right to share their opinions on social media or in many other forums. They don’t have to blast it electronically to everyone, but they do.

However, there is no obligation to be considerate when someone intrudes on your space. Think of how you might deal with a telemarketer who ignores the no-call list or interrupts you at 9 AM on your day off. I can be a bulldog when I respond to a partisan post, also harsh, but never profane. I don’t apologize for my responses. If the posters do not like it, they can unfriend me. I will not take it personally.

The Supreme Court decisions last week created an explosion among a handful of individuals who went berserk over them. My God, how could anyone dare cross their personal lines in the sand? A few resorted to barely disguised profanity (i.e STFU, f**k-g) Had the decisions gone the other way, it would have been the conservative fringe popping off about liberal bias and denial of religious rights.

To a minority of Facebook users, the world is black and white.

Rights collide sometimes. How far can you take freedom of speech without infringing on, say, freedom of religion or the separation of church and state? It is a fuzzy region.

I safely assume at least the vast majority of my Facebook friends follow the news through various sources. I will not bombard them with links to biased sources, or a personal diatribe against this figure or some issue. I do not want to turn their news feeds into a virtual version of MSNBC or FOX News. They can find my opinions easily enough.

So please consider your friends before you launch World War III on Facebook. Find another battleground or start your own Facebook Group – it is very easy.

Happy Anniversary

Citywatch asked me to share my thoughts about Mayor Garcetti’s first year in office.

If I were limited to writing about his tangible achievements, this article would end right here………

– just 30 words about nothing.

That would not be fair.

There are some intangible developments worth mentioning, but there is also so much for him to prove.

The most encouraging sign I see is the synergy among Garcetti, City Attorney Mike Feuer and City Controller Ron Galperin. I cannot recall any administration where the top three elected officials appeared to be in step with each other. For one thing, all of them embrace technology. That’s a far cry from the threesome of Villaraigosa, Greuel and Trutanich who allowed the city to slip further behind 21st century information processing standards. There is no doubt in my mind Los Angeles will move forward and close the gap.

It was also heartening to see the three stand together against Brian “Vladimir” D’Arcy’s disrespect for the public’s right to transparency over the financial disclosures of the secretive Joint Institutes of Safety and Training. By contrast, the City Council has remained mum.

But what is in store for the next three years? A more tech-savvy city that still cannot fix its streets and gives developers breaks to build more luxury hotels?

Garcetti’s effectiveness will boil down to how well he manages the city’s finances. He can’t do it alone – there is an entrenched civil service bureaucracy at City Hall and a City Council that does not want to make waves with the public employee unions.

Freeing up funds to provide both core services and eliminate some of the massive deferred maintenance will depend on whether Garcetti can secure higher contributions from labor to cover steadily growing health care and pension costs. Left unchecked, retirement benefits will eventually consume the majority of the general fund within a generation.

It would not be productive for the mayor to tackle education at the granular level as Villaraigosa attempted. Instead, Garcetti should use his superior communication skills – something his predecessor lacked – to encourage more parental activism to free students as much as possible from the tyranny of the LAUSD.

Garcetti is on record as wanting to reform the DWP. He made a good start by appointing responsible commissioners and advocating for new management at the utility. Now he has to make sure his team can deliver better customer service and more attention to infrastructure replacement. It will require loosening IBEW work rules and reining in the compensation costs. Rate increases are inevitable, so the long-term goal should be to attain maximum value for our money.

Of course he will not be able to achieve all of these things in a single term, but he must show at least some progress in his second year to prove he is committed to turning the city around both financially and in terms of quality of life.

It has been reported that the infrastructure construction for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio are in even worse shape than in the run-up to the Athens Games in 2004. Social unrest also grips Brazil as people question the nation’s priorities.

In a recent poll, only 48% of the population were happy playing host to the World Cup tournament in a country where futbol is a religion.

Olympic costs will far exceed those of the World Cup – a projection of $18 billion vs. $11 billion for the latter. The new stadium is about $100 million over budget.

Regardless of the costs, the IOC may have to make what might be the most controversial decision in sports history if it appears that the facilities in Rio will be largely unfinished by the opening ceremonies. It could move the Games to an alternate location.

Although everything would be done to avoid such an embarrassment, it is not out of the question, especially if major venues are not in condition to offer competitors and fans a safe experience. If public unrest grows, fears of riots could drive countries to pull their national teams from the Games.

The point of no return is rapidly approaching – say by September of this year. A go or no-go decision will have to be made.

So what city would be capable of stepping up?

Conceivably, London could, but the chances are virtually zero the IOC would allow the same city to host back-to-back Games.

The facilities used for Athens and Beijing are rotting away.

No city in the world can match Los Angeles for its combination of sports infrastructure, balmy weather, die-hard fans and, most of all, the entrepreneurial character of its business community. Add to that, you could have Mitt Romney manage the preparation and staging of the Games. He could go down in history as having been behind two financially successful Olympics in a world where it is an achievement for the host city to simply avoid bankruptcy. Put it this way, it offers a much better opportunity than running for president again.

But could a Los Angeles Olympics earn a surplus?

The 1984 Games made a surplus of $232 million against $546 million in costs, a 42% return . Much of the surplus was funneled into an endowment – LA84 – that still contributes to sports programs benefiting local children and schools today.

We have much more riding in our favor these days. Besides the experience and lessons learned from 1984, we have a vastly larger commuter rail system, more hotel beds and key new facilities, such as the Staples Center, to complement older serviceable arenas.

We do not need new stadiums, only upgrades.

Beach volleyball anyone? I mean real beach volleyball.

Local colleges can provide housing for many athletes. Many residents would open their doors to athletes and team personnel as well.

Of course residents could benefit from one of the best tax breaks around – you can rent your dwelling tax-free for fourteen days no matter how much you charge. It would be enough to make many people leave town and reduce the traffic load.

Perhaps Mayor Garcetti and the County Board of Supervisors could quietly suggest to the IOC that Los Angeles stands ready if needed.

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