Potholes And Road Damage: How The Census Impacts LA Freeway Commutes

Los Angeles traffic flows lighter than usual on the 110 and 101 freeways before the "stay-at-home" restrictions went into effect to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. (David McNew/Getty Images)

What's at stake for Southern California in the 2020 Census? Billions of dollars in federal funding for programs like Medi-Cal, for public education, even disaster planning. Political representation in Sacramento and D.C. A census undercount could cut critical resources in L.A. County, home to the largest hard-to-count population in the nation.


Last year, Angelenos spent an average of 103 hours sitting in traffic, according to an analysis of congested cities worldwide produced by INRIX. As most commuters will tell you, L.A.'s freeways could use some work — looking at you, SR-110. The census may count people, but its data is also the basis for determining what type of road work is done, when and where.

Think of it this way: The northern portion of the SR-110 freeway near Pasadena was built in 1938, before millions of residents called the area home. Highway planners had no way of anticipating how central it would be to L.A. more than 80 years later. Funding for improvements — like freeway expansion and repair — is allocated based on census data.

ROADWORK AND THE CENSUS

Public sources fund most road construction and repairs, but the federal government covers about 25% of costs. Two federal grants impact commuters and the infrastructure they rely on most directly. In fiscal year 2016, Department of Transportation (DOT) administered more than $3.5 billion to the state of California for highway planning, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) distributed close to $330 million through community block grants, according to a George Washington University report.Though that's a lot of money, rush hour traffic would suggest it's still not enough.

DOT's federal funding exists to help state transportation departments improve the National Highway System. The money can be spent on public roads, defunct bridges and safe highway design. HUD grants are used to prevent neighborhood blight. They fund street repair, bridge maintenance and alley cleanup — primarily in low to moderate-income areas. To access these DOT or HUD funds, state transportation departments apply for formula grants that draw upon population and income data from the census and American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every year.

WHAT'S AT RISK IF THERE'S AN UNDERCOUNT?

It's no secret that roads are a major problem for California. The state received a grade of "poor, at risk" for its roads on an infrastructure report card produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) last year.

"Repair and improvement to these roads is vital to California's economic health and public safety," the report read. "A good transportation system enables efficient movement of goods and people and is critical to California's economic well-being."

In 2017, ASCE said more than $130 billion was needed to get the state's roads back into shape.


WHAT'S AT STAKE WITH CENSUS 2020?


A census undercount in California, however, would mean a smaller share of federal transportation funding across the state. In Los Angeles, the consequences are even more devastating. L.A., a major transit hub with about 515 miles of freeway and expressway, is also the hardest-to-count county in the country and is chronically undercounted.

Less funding for highway construction, maintenance, repair and extension projects actually costs Angelenos. Extra vehicle operating costs (VOC) as a result of driving on roads in need of repair cost the average L.A. driver $921, according to a 2018 analysis conducted by TRIP, a national transportation research group.

Downtown Los Angeles traffic before sunrise, days after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued "stay-at-home" orders stemming from the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Raul Arrazabal, who's been a rideshare driver in L.A. since 2016, knows how much work the city's roads need. He once blew a tire on a pothole at a freeway on-ramp entrance with a passenger in tow.

"When I'm on a bad road, I know that I have a chance of messing up my tires," Arrazabal said. "And that costs money, especially for rideshare. It's very easy on a proposition to just put, 'Oh, you know what, I want more money to be invested in streets.'"

Grants funded with federal dollars, allocated according to census-informed data, help ensure roads are designed, repaired and maintained with the safety — and wallets — of motorists in mind.

Gabriela Torres also contributed to this story.