With billions in backlogged work Long Beach could look to bonds to fix city streets

Long Beach has nearly $4 billion in unfunded and underfunded projects, repairs and investments that need to be made in city streets, buildings and other assets and the focus is now on federal and state funding, or new bonds and taxes to help finance them.

The City Council held a study session Tuesday afternoon to learn about the funding gap and potential revenue sources it can pursue to slow the deterioration of city streets and buildings and complete legally mandated improvements to city sidewalks brought on by a settlement in an ADA lawsuit. The latter will require a total of 3,500 new ramps to be installed over the next 13 months, something that will be prioritized over sidewalk repairs.

Long Beach also owes billions in city employee pension contributions, tree maintenance, stormwater protection and the looming question of what to do with the Queen Mary.

But the focus Tuesday was on one of the largest expenses the city has, street and alley repairs. Public Works Director Eric Lopez estimated the total needed to fix city streets at $1.77 billion, which is the level of funding needed to bring the city’s average pavement condition index score to 85.

The index rates streets in the city on a scale from 1-100, with the highest score representing a street in excellent condition and the lowest being a street that has failed and needs to be completely reconstructed, the most costly kind of street repair.

The cost to repair an excellent street is about $2 per square foot while a poor or very poor street can range from $17 to $30 per square foot.

The citywide pavement condition score is 58 with just 13% of streets being considered “excellent” and 53% of the city’s streets being rated “fair to marginal” or worse.

Lopez said that the city needs to spend about $58 million annually to maintain the current street conditions but the city has instead spent around $33 million annually on street repairs and paving, leading to the city’s backlog of poor and very poor streets climbing to 26%.

“You definitely don’t want to be over 20%,” Lopez said.

The council could decide on whether to issue bonds to help speed up the rate of street repairs, something that was floated in November as a way to save taxpayers money by fixing more streets faster.

City Manager Tom Modica said that bonding can provide short-term benefits but could require the council to make cuts to other services to pay for the debt service. But Modica said it’s something the council look at early next year.

He also advised the council members to reduce their wish lists to a short list in anticipation of Measure A funding decreasing over the next five years.

Measure A will be cut by 25% starting in fiscal year 2023, so the city can pay its share of a countywide tax that was levied to pay for services and housing for those experiencing homelessness. 
The Measure A sales tax increase has regularly provided the city with about $60 million to invest in city infrastructure and public safety. Modica said that figure could drop to $38 million next year.

“There’s a lot of tough discussions we’re going to be having over the next year,” Modica said.

Modica also said that the city would prioritize future projects based on a number of criteria like the number of residents they’ll impact, the urgency of the project, how many jobs it creates and how “shovel ready” they are.

He laid out scenarios ranging from six-month to 18-month completion times, adding that anything beyond that would not be considered shovel-ready. The city has about $293 million in immediate facility repairs, according to the presentation.

Council members were mixed on their support for issuing bonds to pay for street repairs. Councilwoman Stacy Mungo Flanigan, who originally requested city management to look into the funding source last year, said that it could be an opportunity to save taxpayer money.

But Councilman Rex Richardson said he was hesitant to potentially put public safety services on the chopping block to divert Measure A funds toward street bonds.

Richardson referenced the restoration of a Long Beach Fire Department rescue unit in North Long Beach. Funded by Measure A, the improved response times in his district brought about by the restoration are something he said he didn’t want to get cut.

“What I wouldn’t want to do is leave that to a future council if we make that decision here,” Richardson said.

Whether the council opts to go the bond route could depend on the level of outside funding the city gets.

The city has successfully lobbied for federal and state funding in the past, including the roughly $250 million it received in COVID-19 aid that helped to balance this year’s budget and put off a projected $30 million in cuts until next year.

It scored some state funding for park projects and could be in line for federal help to address some major corridors in the city but how future infrastructure funding could be handed down from the federal government is unclear.

Congress is currently debating a massive infrastructure bill, which could become law in the coming months, but funding could come in the form of grants that the city would need to apply for rather than the direct funding that it received over the past year and a half.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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