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The Downs and Ups of Driving in Los Angeles

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

The mayor of Los Angeles wants to spend $750 million to fix holes in city streets. The City Council thinks that is too expensive.

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LOS ANGELES — The southwest border of Beverly Hills runs along Whitworth Drive. In some ways, it is impossible to distinguish where that city ends and this sprawling one begins. The houses are not drastically different and the lawns are manicured on both sides of the road.

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Keeping up with repairs has proved a daunting task in a city that is responsible for about 6,500 miles of road.

Oh, but that road.

Drive west on Whitworth and the car rides like a luxury sedan. Drive east and it is more like a covered wagon bouncing across a pockmarked prairie.

There are no snowstorms here. The swings in the weather might make those from heartier parts of the country scoff. But there are potholes aplenty. Indeed, on some major streets, every downpour seems to bring another jarring rut.

In a city where driving takes up an enormous amount of physical and mental energy, it is hardly surprising that the holes in the roads provoke deep irritation, the sort of thing that residents pester the mayor about when they spot him out and about.

“This is a city built with an addiction to the single passenger automobile and people are on every road every day, so we have a daunting task,” said Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, who campaigned on a promise to fix the city’s streets. With crime down to some of the lowest levels in recent memory, he said, people have to find something to complain about. And these days, potholes it is.

“I hear it all the time,” he said, “and I tell people: I got the message. We’re fixing the streets.”

For decades, more streets fell into disrepair than were fixed. But now, the mayor said with no small amount of pride, the city’s streets are not getting worse.

“That hasn’t happened since World War II,” he said. “Of course the standard should be fixing more streets, not just stopping them from falling apart.”

Late last year, the mayor floated a plan to spend $750 million over the next several years to fix roughly 1,500 miles of streets, far more than the city has been able to do in the past several decades. But members of the City Council have voiced skepticism over the plan, which they said would cost too much money.

In 2008, voters in the county approved a half-cent sales tax to raise $36 billion over three decades to pay for transportation programs. The mayor’s plan would involve borrowing more money to rapidly improve the streets and repaying it using the city’s revenues from the half-cent tax.

According to a study in 2009 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the Los Angeles metropolitan area had the poorest road quality of any metro area in the country, based on data and reports from local drivers — although San Diego and San Francisco were not far behind. The study found that 64 percent of all roads in the Los Angeles area were poor, and an additional 28 percent were mediocre. And residents here pay more annually to repair their vehicles because of the rough roads than any other area in the country.

“It is mystifying, but it’s got to be just the constant wear and tear from constant traffic,” said John Horsley, the executive director of the group. “Everybody is pounding the heck out of the road every day, and that takes a lot out of your streets.”

The study included many roadways that are not within the city’s jurisdiction, and officials here say that comparing Los Angeles with other cities is unfair, since it is so much bigger. Even keeping up with where potholes do exist is an enormous task, considering the amount of surface the city is responsible for — about 6,500 miles. Add up all the lanes, city officials say, and that number balloons to 28,000 miles.

City officials say that despite budget cuts they have done more to improve the streets than any other administration. Last year, the city filled more than 300,000 potholes and spent nearly $100 million on street maintenance, nearly double what the city was spending a decade ago.

By comparison, the famously affluent city of Beverly Hills has spent as much as $5 million a year to keep its 110 miles of streets almost perfectly smooth.

And in what has become something of a winter ritual here, the city has sponsored an annual “Operation Pothole” weekend each year, bringing out extra street repair crews as they fill tens of thousands of potholes — and pose for the news media cameras.

But none of this smoothes the clanking, bumpy roads, where a hole is liable to knock over coffee cups on good days and pop tires on bad ones.

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