We were gripped by riveting video of the 20-foot sinkhole in Studio City that swallowed two vehicles in the wake of Friday’s storm and the 15 Freeway collapse in the Cajon Pass that flung a fire engine around like a toy truck.
But for some, it wasn’t just dramatic, breath-taking video, it was reality TV.
Besides undermining roads in a vivid way, the monster soaker underscored the need to bolster Southern California’s aging transportation network, current and former officials said Saturday.
“I’m not surprised by any of this that is happening right now because we have been delaying maintenance everywhere,” said Hasan Ikhrata, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Southern California Association of Governments.
And former San Bernardino Mayor Patrick Morris quickly drew the same conclusion.
“I guess that’s testimony of the amount of maintenance needed in California,” Morris said by phone.
“When you get rainstorms like we’ve experienced over the last several weeks, suddenly reality sets in,” he said.
State Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, termed the damage a wake-up call – and symbol.
“It’s symbolic that we’re not paying attention to infrastructure,” Stone said. “It’s a symptom of a greater problem. It all comes down to neglect.”
SCREAMING FOR HELP
It was just after 8:15 p.m. Friday when firefighters rolled up at Woodbridge Street in Studio City, just west of Laurel Canyon Boulevard, and found a Mercedes-Benz SUV in a huge hole broiling with rushing water.
A 48-year-old woman was standing on top of the upside-down vehicle. She had scrambled out of the SUV and was screaming for help.
“Firefighters jumped into action and rapidly lowered a (20-foot) extension ladder down to the woman, allowing her to climb out,” said Erik Scott, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.
At about the same time, dozens of miles to the east, a San Bernardino County firetruck that had been hanging seemingly by a thread tumbled off to the side as a 200-foot section of an I-15 slow lane collapsed. Rain water had been undermining the section and the pavement suddenly gave way.
The three firefighters assigned to the engine had gotten out before that and no one was hurt. But Caltrans estimated in a Twitter message that the cost of repairs would run about $3 million. It was unclear on Saturday how long repairs will take.
Those were some of the most glaring examples of problems that surfaced as the storm, stoked by the mid-air collision of low pressure system and a massive plume of moist Pacific air, soaked the region with up to 5 inches of rain in 24 hours.
It reminded Stone of the time remnants of a tropical storm unleashed downpours that knocked out an Interstate 10 bridge in the Riverside County desert in July 2015, crippling the major transportation link between Southern California and Phoenix. While the bridge was being fixed, detours added several hours to trips along a route heavily used by truckers and crucial for product delivery.
Similarly, the damage to the 15 Freeway, which temporarily squeezed southbound traffic into two lanes between Highway 138 and Cleghorn Road, isn’t just an inconvenience, Ikhrata said. It’s a mammoth hit to Southern California’s economy.
He noted the 15 links the region with Las Vegas and points beyond, and that Cajon Pass is one of two main gateways into Southern California from the north — the other is the 5 Freeway over the Grapevine.
“The pass is so important,” said Ikhrata, whose agency represents Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and two other counties. “It’s an economic disaster as well.”
Meanwhile, the damage comes a few days after a research group’s annual report card spotlighted numerous aging Southern California bridges on a list of the nation’s 250 most heavily traveled structurally deficient spans.
Los Angeles and Orange County spans dominated the top spots on the American Road and Transportation Builders Association list, which mentioned several bridges along the 110 Freeway. A Riverside County freeway bridge was rated 88th worst nationally.
Sadly, said former Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, the list and the storm damage reflect the lack of attention California leaders have given to transportation lately.
Theories abound as to what’s the reason for that.
“Some of it is human nature,” Gatto said.
He said public officials, like everyday people, often react to problems and challenges rather than plan for them in advance.
“But you can’t attribute all of this to human nature,” he said. “We need a little more forethought in our state.”
Many have been saying that as road damage has multiplied in recent years.
And Ikhrata said a recent analysis estimated there is a 10-year, $296 billion backlog of maintenance for the state as a whole, and a $190 billion backlog for the six counties the association represents.
“This is just to bring the system up to par,” he said.
BACK TO THE WELL
However, leaders disagree on how the backlog should be financed.
Ikhrata said the problem is so large that existing revenue sources cannot handle the challenge. He generally supports a proposal by state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, to raise $6 billion in new money.
Beall has proposed boosting the per-gallon gas tax by 12 cents, the diesel excise tax by 20 cents and the sales tax by 4 percent, plus enact an annual $100 fee on zero-emission vehicles.
Stone opposes any new tax because the state has had a habit of diverting some of existing transportation revenue away from roads to balance Sacramento’s budget.
“I don’t think it’s right to go back to the well and ask for more,” Stone said.
The solution, he said, is to use all available sources that were originally intended for roads.
Perhaps, said Morris, there is a sliver of hope in President Donald Trump’s vow to launch a 10-year, $1 trillion infrastructure building program across the country. But to say he is cautiously optimistic about that would be putting it mildly.
“Promises made are not promises kept,” Morris said.
In any event, seeing the 15 and a Studio City street crumble is just more frustration for officials who view transportation as one of the state’s most pressing concerns.
“We always prided ourselves in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as having the finest transportation system in the country,” Stone said. No longer.