The backbone of every municipality is a well-maintained system of streets, sewers and civic buildings. But oftentimes, if those components are well-maintained, the people charged with maintaining them do not get credit. Only when trees are not trimmed and the streets are not repaved do neighborhoods delve into the heart of City Hall in search of those responsible. In an attempt to move past that, TPR is pleased to bring its readers Vitaly Troyan, City of L.A. City Engineer and really get inside the dialogue and conversation he is trying to create within the walls of City Hall and throughout the communities of L.A.
Mr. Troyan, I'm not sure all of our readers fully appreciate and understand the mission and focus of Los Angeles' Bureau of Engineering. What is the scope of your Bureau's responsibilities?
The Bureau of Engineering is the infrastructure manager for the City of Los Angeles. We take care of the delivery of voter approved bond issues and manage the streets, sewers, storm water systems and public buildings-basically we are in charge of all the public projects in Los Angeles save the port and airport.
And what organizational challenges do you face as the infrastructure manager for the City of Los Angeles?
The Bureau of Engineering works with its client departments to identify sites for their facilities. Once that is completed we then work with the General Services Division to prepare the estimate, make the offer, negotiate the land purchase and ultimately purchase the site. After the site is acquired, we manage the construction and, when the facility is completed, we turn it over to our clients for maintenance.
Unfortunately that description makes it sound like this is a straightforward process. But when you look at those duties in light of the difficulties involved in acquiring land in L.A. and the rigorous approval process, getting anything built in Los Angeles becomes an interesting experience. We've tried to overcome those barriers. We've tried to be the "nice guy" and work with property owners. But in the end, regardless of how we progress on a project or acquire a site, we're often accused of being heartless.
Mr. Troyan, missing in much of the Smart Growth infill efforts in L.A. has been the use of collaborative inter-department planning (i.e. CRA, City Planning, Housing, the Neighborhood Councils, the Department of Recreation and Parks, and the Library Commission). Given your Bureau's resonsibilities to work with these various client departments to site and build projects, are there ways of interfacing across departmental lines so that taxpayers and neighborhoods get, in addition to cheaper, better leveraged and well programed and designed buildings?
The Bureau manages park, animal care, fire, police and library projects. And by having all of those projects under the same management structure we have built-in coordination. Combine that with our monthly meeting of General Managers responsible for development-City Planning, Engineering, Building & Safety, etc.- and I think we are getting better at coordinating activities and giving the city the maximum "bang for the buck."
So there is some coordination on a siting basis. But what about for construction? In a TPR interview in March with City Architect Deborah Weintraub she spoke of the LEED building standards and their hearing by the City Council. As the City Engineer, what are some of the issues you face in responding to those standards and pushing the building envelope?
The LEED standard of siting, use of natural light and materials, ect., should not be difficult to implement because it includes items that architects should include normally.The one problem with the LEED standard however, is that it was developed for high rise buildings. Since most of our projects are relatively small, like fire stations, we deviate from the original intent of the standards. However despite that slightly difference, we are exploring ways to overcome those barriers and believe that the LEED standard will revolutionize the way we look at public projects in the city.
Let's now delve into topics other than funding neighborhood infrastructure and how best to publicly reinvest in neighborhood revitalization. Statement 34 from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) says that the goals of infrastructure investment should be: 1) Maintaining an accurate inventory of eligible infrastructure assets; 2) Conducting a condition assessment survey of eligible assets every three years; 3) Tracking annual expenditures to maintain and preserve assets; and 4) Expensing improvement to an asset that lengthens its life. What's the city doing with respect to those recommendations?
Infrastructure has no "Friends of"-there are no "Friends of the Sewers" or "Friends of the Street" and that means that when budgets are formalized, infrastructure has no voice. GASB gives them a voice and makes them policy considerations. Because of that, GASB 34 has the potential to radically change the way business is done when it comes to infrastructure.
For example, the City of Los Angeles has already surveyed all of its bridges. And in following with GASB 34, we will maintain the bridges at service level B. That recommendation was approved by the Public Works Committee and has gone to Council. If approved by the Council, we will have institutionalized a framework that will mandate the maintenance of the city's bridges at an acceptable level of service.
We are also submitting a proposal examining the City's storm water system. We have created an inventory, mapped the system, completed a rapid condition assessment and we're now receiving bids on a $750,000 contract to inspect all of the pipes in the system. Once we receive that report, we will go to the Mayor and the Council and have them make a policy decision about the level of maintenance necessary to maintain the storm water system at an acceptable level.
Let's stop for a moment. What is the value of political will in determining infrastructure priorities? In our term-limited world, representatives will undoubtedly make a number of their decisions based on what issues their constituents are immediately clamoring about. And as you say infrastructure doesn't have an advocacy group. How are you able to prioritize these long-term infrastructure matters without a "Friends of"support group?
We've taken our message to the neighborhoods and used public meetings to educate residents about infrastructure needs and funding. By going to them, accessing Neighborhood Councils, etc. we have elevated the discussion. People are now finally beginning to understand the link between tree trimming, street lighting, street paving and infrastructure investment.
You talk about educating the citizenry, but how do you get your point across to decision-makers? How can you convince them of infrastructure's worth when a public works crisis arises?
Let me use an example from the City of Berkeley. For many years Berkeley devoted an enormous amount of funding to social resources. They had a very liberal Council for decades and because of that, infrastructure fell apart. However, when that happened the citizens rose up, complained about the streets and sidewalks and elected a more conservative board. That Council shifted resources toward streets and sidewalks. And when they were fixed, Berkeley went back and elected a liberal Council again. That's the nature of politics. When conditions become intolerable, the public votes for the money to fix it.
Right now L.A. streets score a 70 out of 100 on the city streets condition score. And while on a case by case basis that might be close to a point where people would begin to protest, on a systemwide level that condition is not intolerable. So we are not yet at a crisis point at which the public is yelling for its elected official to invest in infrastructure.
Are you saying that it is impossible to plan proactively for infrastructure?
No. We can be proactive. But to do that we have to keep talking about infrastructure, continue to raise awareness. In that way, when the appropriate opportunity arises, we'll be ready.
Here is what I predict will happen with regard to the City of Los Angeles' infrastructure. In 3 or 4 years, as old bonds are paid off, the amount of debt the city has will drop dramatically. That will be the time to go to the public with a bond issue about infrastructure.
This whole process is cyclical. An elected official moves to a leadership position and says, "We need this," it's then placed on the ballot, the elected official leads the charge to approve the money, the voters approve the bond, the Bureau gets the money, we spend it responsibly and we build more support for infrastructure and the next bond.
So if we interview you a year from now, what should be the benchmarks our readers use to assess your accomplishments? What do you hope to be able as a Bureau to report to the Public Works Committee next year?
If you came back a year from now, we will have presented to the Council the status of all the key elements of infrastructure in the city-what each system consists of, what its condition is, what we're spending on it and how much we need to spend to keep it running.
On that note let's close with this last question. The budget for the City of L.A. will soon be announced. It will undoubtedly impact the fate of a lot of the programs that you've talked about, at least in the short-term. What's at stake for you and your department in this upcoming budget re: the Bureau's agenda?
We're in a really tough budget situation right now, but our thinking has to be multi-year. So, in reality, this budget will not make or break infrastructure. The bridge program is already complete. The storm water system is funded. And the buildings and sewers don't rely on a large capital outlay for condition assessments.
However when it comes to repairing infrastructure, we will need a large allocation. And hopefully, if my outlook remains true, the Council will be approving a proposal to issue bonds for streets, sewers and storm water programs on a ballot in the near future.