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Why Do Street Upgrades Take So Long In LA? A Lot Depends On Who Represents Your Neighborhood
More than two years after a 4-year-old girl was killed by a driver while walking to school, her parents are still waiting for the city to install protected left-turn signals to make the Koreatown intersection safer for pedestrians.
An illustration shows signs depicting Olympic Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in Koreatown with pedestrians represented as silhouettes.
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)
(Illustration by Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)
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Alessa Fajardo and Monique Muñoz were killed by drivers on the same Los Angeles street about 8 miles and 16 months apart.

A little girl wear a dress with a pink skirt and a pink bow in her hair. Her chin rests on her hands and she is grinning.
A portrait of Alessa Fajardo.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

On Oct. 16, 2019, Alessa, a 4-year-old preschooler, was a few yards from her school, walking in a crosswalk with her mother, Erica Fajardo, when a driver turned left into the crosswalk and struck them. Erica survived, but Alessa suffered severe brain trauma and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

On Feb. 17, 2021, Muñoz, 32, was driving home from work and attempted to make a left turn at an intersection with traffic signals. A speeding teen driver in a Lamborghini hurtled toward the intersection from the opposite direction in excess of 100 mph, prosecutors later said at his trial. He smashed into her car and killed her.

Both traffic deaths happened on Olympic Boulevard — Alessa at the intersection of Normandie Avenue in Koreatown and Muñoz at the intersection of Overland Avenue in West L.A.

After each of their deaths, their families and community members called on the city to add safety improvements to the intersections, including left-turn phasing — those green arrows that create protected left turns for drivers. They’re also designed to protect pedestrians from left-turning drivers by separating the time each has to cross or turn through an intersection.

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LADOT lists protected left-turn signals in its traffic safety toolkit, stating the upgrade leads to “significant reduction in conflicts among people driving and walking.”

Left-turn phasing was installed at the intersection in West L.A. less than two months after Muñoz died. But Alessa’s parents have been asking and waiting more than two years for similar signal upgrades at the intersection where their daughter was killed.

Two Intersections, Two Safety Realities

Our reporting here was guided by one main question:

Why has one community — which is far more dangerous for people walking and rolling — been waiting more than two years for left-turn arrows while another community got the same upgrade several weeks after a high-profile car crash?

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The core of the issue: how projects are funded — or not — and which projects city councilmembers prioritize. Those two factors are often linked.

A traffic signal shows a green left turn light at Overland Av. The street is crowded with cars and in the background you an see a skyscraper and the mountains.
Vehicles make the left turn from Olympic Boulevard onto Overland Avenue at a protected signal on June 25, 2021.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

In the West L.A. council district where Muñoz was killed, Councilmember Paul Koretz had asked for protected left turns at the intersection before that fatal crash. After her death, he reached out to the city’s Department of Transportation to get those improvements done, and they promptly were.

But in Koreatown, it’s unclear what steps were taken by former Councilmember Herb Wesson or current Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas to improve the intersection; multiple former and current staff members from their offices declined to comment on Alessa’s death or on safety concerns at the intersection where she was killed.

The city had previously identified Alessa’s neighborhood as one of the most dangerous for pedestrians and those getting around on bicycles, skateboards and other wheels. The neighborhood where Muñoz was killed was statistically much safer.

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Children and another pedestrian cross a busy intersection in Koreatown as drivers wait.
Children and another pedestrian cross a busy intersection in Koreatown.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

In its most recent safety study, released in 2017, city officials ranked all of L.A.'s neighborhoods based on the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed or severely injured by drivers per street mile. Out of 111 neighborhoods, Koreatown ranked the 4th most dangerous. West L.A. ranked 77th.

The section of Olympic where Alessa was killed is part of the city’s High-Injury Network — a portion of L.A. streets that are especially deadly for pedestrians.

Shortly after Alessa’s death, her parents Erica and Jaime Fajardo — along with dozens of other concerned Angelenos — requested the city install left-turn arrows at the intersection to reduce the risk of drivers hitting people in the crosswalks.

LADOT staff recommended those signals be added back in July 2020, but roughly 17 months later, they have not been installed. LADOT cannot provide an estimate for when they will be, citing a lack of funding.

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‘No Parents Should Have To Bury Their Kid’

A woman and a man, both in dark purple shirts, hold a picture of a little girl between them.
In this 2020 photo, Erica and Jaime Fajardo hold a portrait of their daughter Alessa, who was killed by a driver while walking to school with her mother in Koreatown in Oct. 2019.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

Getting left-turn arrows at the intersection is deeply personal for Erica and Jaime. They live just down the street from the crosswalk where they lost their daughter. Erica crossed there with Alessa to take her to school every morning. Jaime still drives through it regularly on his way to work. It’s both a traumatic place and a familiar path in their lives.

Now when Jaime drives by his daughter’s former school, he sees a mural on the wall, depicting grassy hills under a blue sky and fluffy clouds. Sitting in the grass, as butterflies glide around her, is Alessa.

“It's a reminder every day,” he says. “I drive by and that's my daughter. I still can't believe it happened.”

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A colorful mural depicts a garden scene with a little girl sitting in the grass and butterflies flying near her.
A mural on the wall of Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center in Koreatown pays tribute to Alessa Fajardo, who was killed by a driver while walking to school with her mother in Oct. 2019.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

Erica thinks about her other children: her son Alexis, who was born about a year after Alessa’s death, and daughter Clarissa, who was two years old when her big sister was killed.

“She's about to turn four — and she's about to start [at] that exact same elementary school,” Erica said. “I don't want it to happen to me again.”

It’s still hard for Erica to walk in her neighborhood. Before, she would have walked with Clarissa to a nearby preschool. Now she drives there.

Last summer, the Fajardos started working on litigation and were advised by attorneys to cease contact with city officials.

A wrongful death complaint was filed in L.A. County Superior Court earlier this year, naming the city of L.A., the driver who killed Alessa and the registered owner of the vehicle. Attorneys allege that city officials were fully aware of the “dangerous condition” of Olympic and Normandie and “through a negligent or wrongful act or omission” allowed it to remain unsafe for parents and children, resulting in Erica and Alessa being hit — and Alessa being killed.

Erica sums up their mission with the lawsuit: “Justice for our daughter and to save another life.”

“This could have been prevented if we had safer measures in place,” Jaime said. “We don't want this to happen again to any other parent who attends this school — or any school for that matter. No parents should have to bury their kid, ever.”

A Matter Of Priorities And Funding

Another important layer to how promptly the city addresses dangerous streets: the level of involvement by city councilmembers in their respective districts. That’s the real crux of this issue. In Los Angeles, safety infrastructure investments in your neighborhood largely depend on how councilmembers choose to prioritize them.

While it’s true that the West L.A. intersection left-turn signals were installed quickly following Muñoz’s death, those upgrades had been pending for the intersection over a year before she was killed.

Posters hung on a tree read "Justice for Monique" and a cutout shows an image of her smiling.
A memorial for Monique Muñoz at Olympic Boulevard and Overland Avenue. Muñoz was killed in a vehicular crash as the result of a high speed driver on Feb. 17, 2021.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Left-turn phasing for Olympic at Overland had been part of a package of intersection improvements in Council District 5 that Koretz first requested in 2019, according to city records. Koretz’s motion requesting the work was passed by the City Council in late September 2019, then approved by LADOT and signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti that fall.

But then those signal upgrades sat in LADOT’s queue for roughly 16 months, even though funding had been identified. In that time, Koretz’s office amended the plan to include left-turn arrows for both directions of Olympic Boulevard at Overland (initially, left-turn phasing was for eastbound traffic only).

After Muñoz was killed, Koretz urged LADOT to put the new signals in, and it worked. In a Facebook post announcing the installation, Koretz thanked several LADOT officials “for being so gracious and understanding with our need to expedite this signal change.”

It’s anyone’s guess how much longer that neighborhood would have waited for left-turn phasing if Koretz hadn’t reached out to LADOT. That speaks to a “fundamental problem in how transportation projects are delivered in the city,” according to Madeline Brozen, deputy director for the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies.

I don't feel like the department charged with ensuring traffic safety, LADOT, feels like they can do projects without the blessing or, frankly, urgency of the council offices that represent those areas.
— Madeline Brozen, deputy director of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies

Nudging various city departments to act is one way to characterize it. Alison Simard, spokesperson for Councilmember Koretz, prefers “facilitating.” That’s part of the council office staff’s job: to find the money for projects in their districts.

“Name the department and we're doing that everywhere, trying to prioritize what the communities need,” she said. “That's our job… to help kind of smooth the way between the priorities of the community.”

The Response From CD 10

What’s unclear is how much of that facilitating happened after Alessa, the 4-year-old, was killed.

The Olympic-Normandie intersection is on the edge of Council District 10, which at the time of her death was represented by Herb Wesson.

Shortly after Alessa’s death, field deputies from Wesson’s office reached out to the Fajardos. Jaime says they asked if he had any ideas for improving safety at the intersection, and he suggested protected left-turn signals.

“I also told them that I'm not an expert on these things, so I would actually depend on them to provide some solutions,” he said. “Ever since that initial call, I never heard back from them.”

Pedestrians walk in a crosswalk at a busy intersection as a crossing guard walks ahead of them on a bright morning.
Pedestrians cross Normandie Avenue with some help from an LADOT crossing guard stationed outsiude Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center in Koreatown.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

Erica and Jaime also made attempts to contact both LADOT and the department’s Vision Zero team. Vision Zero is the city’s initiative to end all traffic deaths by 2025, currently an improbable goal, since traffic deaths — particularly pedestrian killings — have trended upward since the program was launched in 2015.

They asked for safety improvements at the intersection, including left-turn arrows to better protect pedestrians from drivers.

“They never replied back,” Erica said.

Councilmember Mark Ridley-Thomas currently represents the neighborhood. Despite multiple emails to council district officials past and present, field deputies and a spokesperson from Ridley-Thomas’ have declined to comment about Alessa’s death or safety issues at the Koreatown intersection.

This October, Ridley-Thomas was suspended by the City Council following federal bribery charges he faces based on his time on the L.A. County Board of Supervisor. That decision from his fellow councilmembers prohibits him from voting on items, spending his office’s discretionary funds, or providing constituent services.

‘Fewer Resources’ For Safety Upgrades

A series of six images depict an intersection, with a yellow crosswalk in the bottom half of each image. A driver in a dark sedan turns left directly over a rubber strip on the asphalt they're meant to avoid.
The city of Los Angeles installed rubber strips at the intersection of Olympic Boulevard and Normandie Avenue in Koreatown, designed to compel drivers to make slower, wider left turns. On a visit to the intersection earlier this year, not all drivers were getting the hint.
(Photo collage by Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

LADOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds has acknowledged that safety improvements are taking too long. She previously told us the department is limited for reasons "that are somewhat political and somewhat about outreach."

Department spokesperson Colin Sweeney pointed to funding challenges and noted that LADOT is also dealing with a staffing shortage.

“Fewer resources, whether those resources are capital dollars or labor for outreach or design, as examples, will affect delivery of improvement projects,” he said.

Sweeney noted that the city’s Separation Incentive Plan, launched in September 2020, resulted in 129 early retirements from LADOT which were spread across 52 divisions including field crews, engineers, and planners.”

“While staffing does present a challenge, LADOT has continued to deliver major projects without significant disruption,” he said.

A white car turns into the street where a pedestrian wearing a backpack is still in the roadway. A red hand can be seen on the walk signal.
A pedestrian crosses Olympic Boulevard as a driver turns left behind them from Normandie Avenue.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

That’s one key distinction: Improving safety at the intersection where Alessa was killed is not considered a “major project.”

So how much money would the city need to install the new signals? Sweeney said the base cost to upgrade one signal at an existing intersection with signals is $150,000, “with approximately $50K per additional direction.”

Adriane Hoff is a steering committee member with Streets For All, which advocates for investments in public transit and safety infrastructure to protect people walking and rolling. For her, the contrast between the city’s response to Alessa’s death and Monique Muñoz’s death points to a larger problem: “Pedestrian safety is just kind of seen as an afterthought.”

“When a high-profile death like this (Muñoz) happens when the person is driving, I think it might get more attention than if it's a pedestrian,” Hoff said. “Pedestrians are just kind of seen as another number and it shouldn't be that way. Pedestrians are the most vulnerable [road users]; they need to be protected.”

Hoff was one of the local safety advocates who submitted an application to LADOT for left-turn signals at Olympic and Normandie in response to Alessa’s death in Oct. 2019.

“It's really disappointing that we haven't gotten this yet,” she said.

How Are Upgrades Funded?

A collage image shows a white speed limit sign up close, then from a vantage point across the street, where it is obscured by tree branches.
A sign to notify drivers that they're entering a school zone with a reduced speed limit along Normandie Avenue is obscured by tree branches, just south of the intersection with Olympic Boulevard.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist)

Tracking where the money for improvements comes from gets a bit murky.

For example, safety upgrades could come through Vision Zero funding — if those improvements are part of a Vision Zero corridor project.

Funding could also be awarded via the Safe Routes to School program. In fact, there is an existing proposal to add improvements around the school Alessa attended, Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center.

Back in 2018, before her death, LADOT had proposed a slate of other safety improvements around Alessa’s school. That included upgraded crosswalks, leading pedestrian intervals and curb extensions, but that work was never funded.

But as of now, the signal upgrades won’t be paid for through Vision Zero or Safe Routes to School funds. That's because the intersection is not part of plan, even though Alessa was killed on a High-Injury Network street within a school zone long identified as one of the most in need of improvements.

LADOT can also seek state and federal funds. For example, the department recently received $18 million from the federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) Grant Program. Sweeney said that money “will deliver 26 new traffic signals and LPI enhancements at 90 intersections” in South L.A.

Some Changes Made At Koreatown Intersection

Children in masks cross a busy Koreatown intersection in a crosswalk. Plastic bollards shown on the left are meant to compel drivers to take slower, safer left turns.
Children in masks cross the busy intersection of Normandie and Olympic in Koreatown. The plastic bollards shown on the left are meant to compel drivers to take slower, wider left turns.
(Brian Feinzimer for LAist)

Following Alessa’s death, LADOT workers restriped the crosswalk where she and her mother were hit. The department conducted a safety review at the intersection, which was completed roughly nine months after the collision. Staff concluded that more safety upgrades were needed there — including left-turn phasing.

LADOT approved those changes, but for the remainder of 2020 the intersection remained unchanged.

Then in January 2021, days after LAist published an investigation into Alessa’s death and the long-documented dangers for pedestrians in Koreatown, LADOT made some improvements at the intersection.

Want to request safety improvements on your local streets?
  • It might be difficult right now. LADOT has “limited safety requests to the most essential needs during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The department's service request webpage states that request should be "directly related to COVID-19." Residents with safety concerns are now being asked to contact the LAPD's traffic division.

Workers installed Leading Pedestrian Intervals, or LPIs, at the crosswalks of Olympic and Normandie. LPIs retime the signals to give people walking a few seconds’ head start to cross a street before drivers get their green light. The Federal Highway Administration lists LPIs among its “proven safety countermeasures,” and research shows they can reduce vehicle-pedestrian collisions by 13%.

LADOT also added centerline hardening on Olympic, installing rubber strips and plastic bollards to extend the center dividing lines in front and behind the crosswalk. That’s supposed to compel drivers to make wider, slower left turns — though crews have had to go back out and replace the bollards more than once after drivers knock them down.

But left-turn phasing was not installed at that time, and LADOT could not provide an estimate at the time for when those signals might be added.

LADOT also has a crossing guard stationed at the intersection, though not in the same crosswalk where Alessa and Erica were struck.

A crossing guard holds a red STOP sign and begins to walk through a busy intersection as drivers queue up in the background.
An LADOT crossing guard patrols one of the crosswalks at Olympic and Normandie that leads to Mariposa-Nabi Primary Center in Koreatown. The city stationed the crossing guard there following the death of Alessa Fajardo, who was killed by a driver while walking to the school in Oct. 2019.
(Alborz Kamalizad
/
LAist )

Holding Drivers Accountable

Another key difference between the deaths of Monique Muñoz and Alessa Fajardo is the level of accountability for the drivers that killed them.

The teen driver who killed Muñoz was arrested six days after the fatal crash — while he was in the hospital being treated from injuries — and later charged with felony vehicular manslaughter. The driver, who has not been named by officials because he is a minor, later pleaded guilty to the charge. In October, he was sentenced to 7-9 months in a juvenile camp.

The case stayed in the public eye, driven by outrage directed toward the teen driver and his multimillionaire father, James Khuri, who shows off his collection of sports cars on Instagram.

The crumpled remains of a car following a high-speed collision is behind police tape. The vehicle is mangled and misshapen.
One LAPD investigator described the fatal Feb. 17 crash at Olympic Boulevard and Overland Avenue as "complete devastation." Officials believe the victim, 32-year-old Monique Muñoz, died almost instantly.
(Courtesy LAPD West Traffic Division via Twitter)

Family and friends of Muñoz accused authorities of giving the teen driver preferential treatment due to his father’s wealth. They called for the teen to be tried as an adult — he was 17 years old at the time of the crash and is now 18.

L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón issued a directive the day he was sworn into office saying his office would “immediately end the practice of sending youth to the adult court system.”

Indira Marrero, the woman who killed Alessa, was charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence and driving without a license — both misdemeanors. But she has not yet appeared in court to face those charges.

Marrero did not show up for her arraignment in Nov. 2020, and a warrant for her arrest was issued. As of this publication, she has not been arrested, according to the DA's office.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesperson for the city attorney's office, confirmed this month that the case against Marrero was “still in warrant status.” We asked how these arrest warrants usually work and if it’s typical for drivers charged with killing pedestrians to avoid a courtroom for this long, but he declined to comment.

What If And What Is

It's impossible to cover these deaths and not think about some what ifs:

  • If the city had installed those left-turn arrows sooner, would Monique Muñoz still be alive today?
  • And if safety upgrades had actually been installed at the intersection where Alessa Fajardo was killed years earlier — back when the city first identified the need for improvements to better protect children there — would the Fajardos still have their daughter?

Maybe.

Prosecutors said the driver who killed Muñoz was going roughly 100 mph as he approached the intersection. It’s impossible to know with certainty that the outcome would be different with that much potential chaos throttling toward her.

The driver who hit Alessa and Erica told police she didn’t see the mother and daughter walking in front of her as she turned into them. An LAPD investigator told us her mobile phone records were not pulled after the collision — which he said would have required probable cause to believe she was using the phone at the time. Alessa's parents have said without that information, they don't believe there is a clear picture of the driver’s behavior in the moments before she killed their daughter.

At the core of the work to reduce traffic violence is that lives can be saved by reducing risky behaviors on our roads, experts say. And the city can do that by putting more safeguards in place that compel road users — especially people driving — to slow down and pay attention.

But for Erica and Jaime Fajardo, Monique Muñoz’s family, and the thousands of other families that have lost loved ones to traffic violence on the streets of L.A., that work simply did not happen soon enough.

“How many years are they going to wait until it happens again?” Erica wonders. “My daughter is gone. She's not coming back. But it can save a life — another life.”

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