As anyone who has played SimCity knows, if you don’t take care of your municipal infrastructure, terrible things happen to your city. But unlike the computer game, when something blows up or melts down in the real world, you can’t reboot and start over.
The 93-year-old water main that blew in Los Angeles this week—gushing 75,000 gallons a minute at its peak and 1,000 a minute once it was under control—was spectacular, but not unpredictable. Two-thirds of the city's 7,238 miles of pipes are more than 50 years old but only 43 miles were replaced during a recent 15-year period, according to a 2012 study (pdf) by the USC Center for Sustainable Cities.
After 101 major serious ruptures in the summer and fall of 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department drew up plans to replace around 38 miles of pipe a year for four years, according to the report. It got funding for about half of the first year and didn’t do much better down the road.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the city’s Department of Water and Power (DWP) is on a course to complete its replacement of the entire system every 300 years. So once the department finishes fixing the break that dumped 20 million gallons of water on Sunset Boulevard as of Wednesday afternoon and flooded Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, it can book its return in 2314.
DWP delivers 500 million gallons of water to customers each day.
Water blew through layers of Sunset at rush hour Tuesday, erupting in an uncontrollable 30-foot geyser. Dozens of cars in underground garages were dunked, and stranded people were rescued by boat. The blast left a 25-foot-wide sinkhole in its wake.
Officials told CNN that the eruption came at the intersection of two pipes, one 30-inch pipe from 1921 and the other 36 inches wide from 1956. The DWP has a replacement schedule for water lines that gives priority to those made of riveted steel, like the 1921 pipe. But it was not on the list, DWP ratepayer advocate Fred Pickel told the Los Angeles Daily News.
Councilman Paul Koretz told the Times that he was told speeding up the replacement schedule to 100 years would cost $4 billion, paid for by a 4% water rate increase each year of the decade it would take to catch up.
Cities don’t generally do that sort of thing. Neither do counties, states or the nation when it comes to infrastructure maintenance. L.A.’s finances are not dire, but Mayor Eric Garcetti already pledged in his first State of the City speech not to let the controversial DWP raise rates this year while everyone makes nice.
Since the 1970s, a favored way of handling conundrums presented by underfunded public services is to look for private sector solutions. In October 2012, Jack Humphreville at CityWatch reported that cash-strapped Los Angeles was considering a sale of the city-owned DWP. The city was staring at a $216 million deficit in the coming year and $1.3 billion over four years, not counting billions in pension liabilities and, yes, infrastructure demands.
The story did not put a price tag on the DWP, but said the utility “has annual revenues exceeding $4 billion and an operating profit before interest, depreciation, and amortization of over $1 billion. Total assets exceed $18 billion and are supported by a stated net worth north of $7 billion and long-term debt of almost $10 billion.”
Humphreville cited at least one drawback: “The sale of DWP (and, for that matter, the Port of Los Angeles, LAX, our parking garages, or any other capital asset) is poor financial policy as the proceeds will be used to finance operating expenses, a sure sign of a bankrupt city.”