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Here's why LA prioritizes fixing good and fair streets over those in the worst condition

A pothole on Aviation Boulevard near LAX. The city is working on a backlog of reimbursements for car damage because of the numerous potholes that go unfixed.
A pothole on Aviation Boulevard near LAX. The city is working on a backlog of reimbursements for car damage because of the numerous potholes that go unfixed.
Ken Scarboro/KPCC

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The city of Los Angeles is considered to have some of the worst maintained streets in the country. By the city's own account, roughly a third of all streets are in poor condition — riddled with pot holes, cracks and buckled asphalt. Despite that, some of the city's worst roads are likely to stay that way for a long time, given how L.A. prioritizes funding for street repair.

The city's Department of Public Works has $150 million a year to fix roads, and 80 percent has been earmarked for maintaining the L.A.'s least damaged streets — those given the letter grades A, B and C based on their condition. Streets graded D or F are slated to get 20 percent of street repair dollars.

Why does LA spend more on good roads than bad ones?

It's the official policy of the city. They call it "80/20."

They spend 80 percent of the city's road repair money applying a tarry slurry seal to 1,545 lane miles of roads that are in A, B and C condition to keep them in good shape. (They describe street distances in lane miles: One mile of a four-lane road would be four lane miles.)

The other 20 percent of the road repair budget goes to resurfacing or reconstructing 855 lane miles of mostly D and F-grade roads. The D roads cost about $500,000 per lane mile to resurface, and reconstruction of the F roads costs $1 million or more per lane mile.

With $150 million to spend on road repairs in the coming year, the 80/20 strategy is designed to spread that money around in a way that keep the city's good streets from falling into D and F territory, and to repair enough of the D's and Fs.

How bad are LA streets?

A large pothole mars a portion of Fairfax Avenue. Bike Commuter Sean Meredith shot this photo of KPCC reporter Sharon McNary during their ride on the bumpy street.
A large pothole mars a portion of Fairfax Avenue. Bike Commuter Sean Meredith shot this photo of KPCC reporter Sharon McNary during their ride on the bumpy street.
Sean Meredith

The transportation research group TRIP says the greater Los Angeles area has the second worst streets in the county after the Bay Area. By its own accounting, the L.A. Bureau of Street Services says more than a third of the city's street are ranked as "poor" with letter grades no higher than a D. 

On the whole, Los Angeles streets average a citywide C-minus on the city’s Pavement Condition Index, which is a sliding scale starting at zero where 100 points is a perfect A.

This year’s citywide score is 63,  just a tick above last year's 62.

"We have turned the corner as far as going to the numbers of improvement," said Kevin James, president of the L.A. Board of Public Works.

Beginning in the 2015 fiscal year, at the prompting of Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Bureau of Street Services adopted the goal of fixing 2,400 lane miles of roadway. That's an improvement over previous years. 

The city repaired about 1,900 lane miles of roads in 2012, and 2,100 miles in 2013 and 2014. However, the work was barely enough to keep the city's roads at an overall C-minus. The bump up to 2,400 miles has helped bring the city's score up slightly.

Here is how the city's pavement conditions have improved in recent years, according to the Bureau of Street Services.

2015   2011  
Good (A&B) 46% Good (A&B) 40.50%
Fair (C) 22% Fair (C ) 22%
Poor (D&F) 32% Poor (D&F) 37.5 %

How does the city come up with these scores?

The Bureau of Street Services uses a van equipped with lasers, video, sensors and computers that assign a Pavement Condition Index  or PCI score to every road segment in the city. It takes three years to cover all of Los Angeles.

What do the grades mean?

The city breaks streets into segments and assigns a Pavement Condition Index or PCI number to each segment. A single street, like Fairfax Avenue, can range in condition from a perfect A all the way down to an F.

Using the city's street segment data, here are how some L.A. streets score when their segments are averaged together.

Streets averaging A and B condition are considered "good."

A = 86-100 PCI

The pavement is in good condition, shows no cracking, oxidation (a condition that can make it brittle) and no  failure of the underlying base.  No action is required. Streets ranking between 86 to 100 points on the Pavement Condition Index get an A. Examples include:

B = 71-85 PCI

The pavement is in satisfactory condition and exhibits minimal cracking, no oxidation and no base failure.  These streets require application of a tarry substance called slurry seal. Some streets that average a B are:

Streets earning a "C" grade are  considered "fair."

C = 56-70 PCI

The pavement is in fair condition with very little cracking and base failure.  To maintain the street, it would be overlaid with up to 2 inches of asphalt. Examples of C streets include:

Streets in D and F condition are rated "poor."

D = 41-55

Pavement is in poor condition and exhibits moderate cracking, up to one-third of its base is failing.  These streets require resurfacing of up to 2.5 inches of asphalt concrete. Examples include:

F = 0-40

Pavement is in very poor condition and exhibits major or unsafe cracking, 36  to over 50 percent base failure.  These streets require resurfacing or Reconstruction of 6  to 12 inches of asphalt concrete. Examples include:

What's my street's grade?

The city has a detailed map of street condition grade online here. It's a little bit confusing, though, so we've created this rundown on how to use it

The advanced Bureau of Street Services map put out by City Controller Ron Galperin's office.
The advanced Bureau of Street Services map put out by City Controller Ron Galperin's office.

We want to know how those street determinations differ. Check out how your street ranks in the city's map, then share it with us on Twitter or Instagram.  Tag us @KPCC using the hashtag #myLAstreet.

What are some of LA’s very best streets? 

These streets averaged 100 points.

What is the biggest LA street in the worst condition?

This could be a rich topic for debate, but Venice Boulevard qualifies as the longest street in the worst condition. Stretching from downtown to its namesake neighborhood, Venice has an average score of 49.7, ranking it a D.

What's LA doing to improve road repairs?

The city is building a new asphalt plant to replace the aging 1946 plant on Olympic Blvd. near the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights. It’s supposed to produce material that uses up to 50 percent recycled asphalt torn up from bad city roads to make a product that is cheaper, stronger and longer-lasting than the city’s current asphalt. The city uses only about 15 to 20 percent recycled asphalt in the current plant.

The project started out as a $18 million upgrade two years ago, but became a full-on replacement that Public Works officials said would cost about $23 million. But the lowest bid came in a few months ago at  $30 million. Add in consulting fees, a contingency budget for change orders and $20 million in interest payments over 20 years, the city’s looking at about a $60.2 million project.

Material for making asphalt is processed inside the city of LA's Asphalt I Plant on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Recently, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved construction of a new asphalt plant.
Material for making asphalt is processed inside the city of LA's Asphalt I Plant on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Recently, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved construction of a new asphalt plant.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

But the $8 million in annual savings the plant is expected to generate will not be plowed into more street repairs, said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana at a budget briefing for reporters.

“The savings comes from what we wouldn’t be buying if we went out to the market and buy the asphalt,” Santana said. “It’s a cost avoidance versus actual hard dollars.”

The budget the City Council approved in May shows no increase in the number of miles of street repairs to be done over the next five years.

Once the new plant is finished in 2018, the Bureau of Street Services may ask for the savings to be used to repair more of the city’s worst streets, said Santana's spokeswoman Cielo Castro.

Board of Public Works President Kevin James said he would ask the mayor and council to invest any savings from the asphalt plant into added street repairs.

Loose asphalt is raked across a pothole
Loose asphalt is raked across a pothole
Sharon McNary

What else could improve road conditions?

Public Works board President Kevin James said his goal was for the Bureau of Street Services to elevate L.A.’s street conditions to a grade of 80 but to do that, the city would have to spend much more to repair the worst-condition streets.

But the money to do that would come from an outside agency, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Metro has proposed a new $120 billion version of its Measure R half-cent sales tax that funds transit and transportation projects, and part of the money would be returned to local governments.

If the measure passes in November, it would be up to the City Council and mayor to decide how much of Metro’s local return money would be invested in repairing L.A.’s worst roads, James said.

If you want to move out of the low to mid-60 range, we have to have the additional funding from Measure R 2.0,” James said.