September 18, 2023 - From the September, 2023 issue

Investing In Place’s Jessica Meaney: LA’s Broken System = Broken Sidewalks and Streets

As the process to begin pulling together the City of LA’s yearly budget moves forward this fall, LA’s City Council is also beginning efforts to seriously explore a Capital Infrastructure Plan (CIP), a document that provides a long-term, unified direction for investment in a city’s infrastructure. TPR spoke with Investing in Place’ Executive Director, Jessica Meaney, on how the city’s budgeting could better address the needs of the city, improve equity and be more transparent. Meaney opines that the current way of doing things is failing to serve residents and why her organization’s work to push for a Capital Infrastructure Plan for the City of Los Angeles has been so important.

“A city of 4 million budgets one year at a time, using a budget book that very few can understand. That is no way to manage infrastructure that covers almost 400 square miles… the City of Los Angeles needs a 5-10 year Capital Infrastructure Plan” - Jessica Meaney

Jessica, Investing In Place is creating a Capital Infrastructure Plan (CIP) for the City of LA. What is a CIP and why does Los Angeles need one?

Jessica Meaney: The way the City of Los Angeles currently budgets is wild. A city of 4 million budgets one year at a time, using a budget book that very few can understand. That is no way to manage infrastructure that covers almost 400 square miles. Budgeting one year at a time and in a budget process that combines operating and capital investments, based on our research, is not typical. Take for instance,  the city of Santa Monica , who updates their CIP one year; and, then the next year, they updates their operating budget. Yet, LA currently mashes both processes together in a one-year budget.

We have looked at over 30 cities across North America into how they manage their public right-of-way and their infrastructure in general. As a result, we have zeroed in on the belief that the City of Los Angeles needs a 5-10 year Capital Infrastructure Plan. The last time the city actually had one was around 2007. Since then, there have been motions from council members to do this, but we just haven't seen it get done.

I think of it as a 10-year budget that includes all the funding that's available for the public right-of-way. It starts with what we need to spend to reach our goal. For example, if the mayor and the council say we want to increase our shade canopy by 25 percent, what does it take, financially, to get there? You can also put funding for maintenance into your CIP. So, overall, it includes the funding, all the project needs, and the schedule of how much things are estimated to cost and what year you can expect them, plus an operating budget.

I also admire that CIPs often include a way for the public to get involved by having citizen advisory committees.

Elaborate on the advantages that the City of LA would see by utilizing a CIP, a city that invests roughly $1 billion each year in public works and transportation - and even more from state and federal fund.

I worry many of our policymakers don’t have a sense of the scale of need or what's possible right now with regard to the right-of-way in our city.  Often what we seen in policy discussions is specific projects, or plan in neighborhoods or Council District. I haven’t seen many conversations lately that were a citywide look at infrastructure needs and opportunities.

The biggest win with a CIP and a budgeted project list is it shares both power and knowledge. Right now, trade-offs are being made on our public right-of-way. Of course, they'll continue to be made, but with a CIP, at least more people can be informed and part of the discussions about what the trade-offs are.

A few years ago, we sent a letter to four general managers at the city asking specifically how much we spend on Vision Zero, Safe Routes to School, and other programs. We weren’t able to get many answers. We went around and around with staff for weeks, but ultimately our questions went unanswered from the Department of Public Works, Department of Transportation, Chief Administrative Officer and then the office of Mayor Eric Garcetti.

So, we began doing own research on how much money is going to the public right-of-way in the City of LA every year. If you just look at formula funds (think local return from Prop A, Prop C, Measure R, Measure M and others), which are things that automatically flow to the city's coffers, we think its close to probably over $1 billion a year. If you add in federal and state, the city is pushing at least over $1.5 billion a year into the sidewalks and streets. But the thing is that no one knows for sure. There's not a real Public Works and Transportation budget. We have the blue books and the white books, but not a larger budgeted vision.

Take, for example, sidewalks. There has been 50 years of neglect. Is spending the ~$60 million a year that they allocated in the recent budget enough to fix what's estimated to be 4000-5000 miles of broken sidewalks? I support conversations that will let us see if we have enough to get us the outcomes that we talk about in press conferences.

Focusing on the aforementioned infrastructure investment needs, what's the price that the City of LA is currently paying for not having a multi-year CIP?

Safety. Every three days, somebody dies walking or rolling in the street. Our streets are increasingly dangerous for people just trying to get around.

Access, too. Can you get to the job you want or the health care that you need right now?

There’s also climate change, which the public right-of-way has the ability to address in terms of a lot of our environmental justice and economic challenges.

I would say it's not been working for a long time and I'm not even sure it's because we don't have enough money. We don't even know what our need is or the amount of money we have available to address it.

Share more about Investing in Place.

I started Investing in Place in 2015. My mother taught me that talk is cheap. I want to see where the money is going. People like to say that budgets are a reflection of values; I say that budgets are a reflection of power.

I have been working in transportation policy in Southern California for 20 years. I did some work at Metro in customer services. I worked for several years as a transportation planner at Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). What I heard in the boardrooms and what I had personally experienced as someone who lived without a car -by choice- for about 20 years in LA was incredibly different.

When I started Investing in Place, we focused on Metro. We saw Measure M on the horizon and, through my work at SCAG, I had found buried in the regional transportation plans (RTPs) that less than 1% of our transportation funding was going to sidewalks, bike lanes, and crosswalks, despite our fatality rate and safety issues. There were lots of incongruities in the need and in the funding, and it sent me down this path.

I’m where I've landed today because I'm a policy person, but not a policy person alone. If it's not tied to a budget, I’m not that interested. In 2014, myself and several other advocates helped Metro draft and adopt an award-winning Complete Streets Policy. How's that working for us 10 years later? Unless it's listed in a publicly-accessible, understandable document of what the total need is, along with the total project costs, the source of dollars and the schedule, it won’t be helpful. That's my North Star right now.

To reach your North Star, whom would be of most assistance?

The city of Los Angeles. The mayor and the council. A lot of people, particularly our civic leaders, need to also get involved and champion the need for this.

What I sometimes struggle with is a lot of people I talk to want to know what we can do right now, yet this is a system-level change that will take a lot of the brilliant people here in LA to figure out together. This isn't a ribbon cutting; this is about good governance. This isn’t something one person can solve next week, this is a big lift that requires leadership and input from all over. Can we provide consistent services to people who live throughout the city? You shouldn't have to know someone to get your tree trimmed.

The first thing I want to see happen is for Mayor Karen Bass and the City Council to say on record, and find agreement in, what their vision is, in a measurable way, for the public right-of-way in the next 10 years. Then, we can line up money. It's so vague right now; we can't measure “safe streets,” as that means different things to people. I’d like to see the city move towards budgeting for outcomes, but that requires not only stating, but seeing agreement among leadership what those outcomes are.  

You've been leading Investing in Place for almost a decade now. Your thesis and explanation of need is compelling, but adoption remains elusive. What explains the latter?

Changing the system and the status quo is a monumental task. We need to be getting people fired up to do that and to do it right. We need more people to come to the table and engage with it.

It’s true that you can do big stuff in transportation in a closed-door room with a handful of people who are connected, and, sometimes, great stuff comes out of it. But, if we're talking about shared power and transparency in a city where at least 18 different departments are touching our public right-of-way, we need a much more inclusive and collaborative approach.

It is important that there is support for the different departments to work together to share information and collaborate.

Are you looking for a 21st century Robert Moses in the City of LA?

Kind of the opposite. I don't want a czar. I think there should be shared power.

What we have right now is a Robert Moses czar, and I would say that's the handful of people who are setting the budgets in LA.

Is it an absence of platforms and civic organizations to address this challenge of making our plans, policies, and priorities more transparent?

That's probably my guess. The level of engagement on policy advocacy around the public right-of-way matters feels relatively limited when compared to what I see happening in other cities.

I also think it’s the way the City of LA's governance has come about and the culture that it's created. We’ve told ourselves we're a weak-mayor-city. But, the mayor sets the budget, and that sounds pretty strong to me.

A lot of smart people I know say that LA power and politics are decentralized. I’m not sure I’m 100% convinced that is the case. But what I do know is that we have a tremendous amount of funding coming in for infrastructure from the federal government for the Olympics – all without a plan or project lists – and that needs to be addressed immediately. Why are we not seizing this moment towards a vision to a coordinated approach to benefit the city for the long term? We can address our longstanding issues, like mitigating climate change.

People want to live in a well-run city. I'm not advocating that someone needs to learn the 18 different departments that touch the public right-of-way to get something done. It's not up to the community members to make sure their city is well-run. The onus is on the city. People are busy, many people are struggling.

Let's look at Metro and the upcoming Olympics. Didn't Metro and the Mayor outline a priority list to get infrastructure in place for the Olympics?

Yes, that's the twenty-eight by ‘28 initiative, which are mega projects.

I'm more focused on the statement I recently heard from Stephanie Wiggins, CEO of LA Metro, about wanting 100 miles of bus priority lanes or a car-free Olympics. It’s a great idea, and with a vision for a car-free Olympics, there's a lot of the “squishy” stuff that needs to be done, and done in the next 5 years. Think public bathrooms; safe crosswalks; protected left turn signals. These are investments the City of LA for the most part manages, which underscores the critical need for the Mayor and Council to start moving the Capital Infrastructure Plan yesterday.

From your organization's perspective, what do we do about the issue of encampments impacting the use of public right-of-ways?

We build housing. We provide public bathrooms. We acknowledge that it's happening. We do the things we can do. Metro needs to increase their maintenance budget to fix the lights, increase the cleaning schedules, pick up the trash on the trains and at the stations.

There are currently 14 bathrooms in the City of LA’s public right-of-way. That's inhumane. We need to move forward on improving the public right-of-way just as much as we need to move forward on addressing the housing crisis. They're connected. Maintenance, clean streets, trash pickup, tree trimming, more shade, public bathrooms, water fountains, and safe crossings all help improve everyone's experience.

Tell us about your recent report, titled We’ve Got LA’s Number. What is the purpose and the significance of doing this report?

We published that in May. It's the first step and we had a blast putting it together. We had some fantastic conversations with city departments, general managers and staff on figuring out, for example, how many protected left hand turns there are. How many empty tree wells are there? 200,000. How many lights are out on the street lights? The city doesn’t currently know. We had 115 different assets that we created an inventory for.

Now, we're doing research on standardized costs. For instance, how much does it cost to get a traffic signal? How much is an access ramp? How much does it cost to plant tree, and fund its needed  maintenance? Our goal is to build a model Capital Infrastructure Plan. To build it, the first step is knowing what is in the city’s public right-of-way now, what is needed and what are some costs to help inform this effort.  

Do you attend the City Council Budget Committee meetings leading up to the budget? Is there something of relevance that happens at those public sessions?

Yes. My favorite thing is hearing the general managers in their opening statements on what their vision is. The rest is hard to follow.The committee conversations don’t often include talking about visions or projects or programs; the hearings tend to be mostly focused on full time staff budget requests.  

I’ve learned the hard way that if you're starting your advocacy at the budget hearings in May, you're too late. In September, so right about now, the mayor will send a letter requesting that the departments and the bureaus send their budgets to the CAO’s office by mid-November. Budget advocacy ideally begins before the mayor sends that letter.

There’s also no template for how departments send their budget request memos. It can be as long or short as you want. Everybody does it their own way and then it's the job of the CAO’s team to go through that in December and January.

If you were to lose your sanity and run for public office, what would be your plan to get votes?

My platform would be, “The city works for you.” I believe we have brilliant people here in the City of Los Angeles. There are people who can figure this out if we create the space for conversation and the implementation plan to do it.

How do we create a city that provides public spaces for people with kids? How can we have trees, safe crosswalks, public parks, and public services so people can live their own lives and not worry about it?


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.