Lighter Traffic Means Ramped Up Road Repairs — For Now

7th Street and Figueroa in downtown Los Angeles on March 19, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/ LAist)

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Last weekend, Caltrans closed I-5 in Burbank so a bridge across the freeway could be dismantled. Carmaggedon? Gridlock hell? Nope.

The closure barely made a blip in local traffic — because so many of us are staying home to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Lighter traffic is one of the very few upsides of the pandemic, and local governments are using it as an opportunity to speed up planned road repairs.

Right now, cities and counties have money in hand for road construction projects. They also have the labor, since those construction workers are considered "essential."

So they're taking advantage of the quiet streets to move things forward.

"We see that city and county and state maintenance forces are very active in getting a lot of work done, much more so than they normally would, because they don't have so much traffic to contend with," said Russell Snyder of California Asphalt Paving Association.

MORE DAYLIGHT HOURS

Less traffic means some road crews that might normally have to work at night, or limit construction to the margins of the day, are being given longer daylight hours to lay down new pavement, Snyder said. That translates to faster finish times.

One extreme example of this is in Beverly Hills. The City Council actually closed three blocks of Wilshire Blvd to accelerate construction of the Purple Line light rail project. Normally Wilshire is one of the busiest streets in the region.

LESS PARKING PAIN

Since the city has shifted repaving work to mostly empty major streets, residential streets have been left quiet.

That in turn spares those residents the burden of moving cars during the day when most people are staying at home, said Adel Hagekhalil, General Manager of Streets L.A. (formerly known as the Bureau of Street Services).


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CLEANER STREETS

Another advantage - with so few people driving, major arterial streets are easier to clean. Many that haven't seen a street sweeper in months or longer are now being cleaned, Hagekhalil said.

Meanwhile, Streets L.A. is keeping up with its pledge to fill potholes within three days of receiving a report.

THE SILVER LINING MAY BE TEMPORARY

Remember, much of our local roadwork is funded by taxes on gas and retail sales. Since we're all driving less, that means the state is taking in less of the SB1 gas tax, half of which goes to cities and counties for roadwork.

We're also spending less because most retail is closed, and that leads to less sales tax - which is what supports cities and counties.

It also means less transportation tax - that's the half-cent extra tax on each dollar that is added on top of the regular sales tax in some areas to fund road work and transit projects.

CUTTING BACK

So as local city and county governments draft budgets for the coming fiscal year, roadwork may be at risk if it is not already funded through bonds or the local share of state gas tax.

And lower tax revenue also means some cities may have fewer road workers.

For example, the city of Los Angeles is cutting employee hours by 10% and it plans to ratchet back its most expensive road paving and reconstruction projects.

Streets L.A. is looking at about a 10 to 15 percent cut in revenues overall, said Hagekhalil.

The Los Angeles city budget proposed by Mayor Eric Garcetti would cut reconstruction of the city's old concrete streets and failed asphalt streets.

Since those are the most expensive miles of road to repair, the city has a policy of resurfacing streets that are in fair to good condition to keep them from deteriorating. It reconstructs failed streets only when money is available.

Those worst-off streets will see longer delays as the coronavirus recession unfolds.