The San Fernando Valley’s streets show what’s come of years of neglect in this once-promising young suburb: Children walk to school on dirt paths, neighborhoods don’t have streetlights and some roads haven’t been resurfaced since the dawn of the Space Age. Basic civic infrastructure has deteriorated so badly, or was never put in at all, that vast sections of the Valley look like a developing country – not in the charming, rustic sense that drew hopeful GIs and their sweethearts to new homes 60 years ago, but in a rundown, big-city way. Now, residents like Northridge homeowner Ilene Sanders wage relentless campaigns for repairs – in her case, a battle that spanned three decades to get a street repaved. It finally got done this winter, to the delight of fellow homeowners who threw a coming-out party for the fresh asphalt. “To say that it’s a bureaucratic nightmare is an understatement,” said Sanders, who launched the campaign when her eldest daughter was a first-grader; the young woman is getting married shortly. “It felt amazing after 17 years to get the street paved.” But trying to fix the problems now is a feeble game of catchup that cannot be won without a massive infusion of cash – as some political leaders are discussing – and at least a decade of work. As the Valley region expects to grow by nearly another 200,000 residents in the next 25 years, this historic underinvestment in infrastructure will continue to be a drain on an area that’s developed from a quaint suburb into the equivalent of a city bigger than Philadelphia within Los Angeles’ city limits. “We are so far behind, it’s going to cost a fortune to get caught up,” said Councilman Greig Smith, who represents the Northwest Valley and is past chairman of the City Council’s Public Works Committee. For years, there’s been talk of asking voters to approve a massive infrastructure bond to get the city caught up on the repairs. Smith had considered a proposal as recently as last fall – until he saw the $3 billion price tag he knew wouldn’t fly at the ballot box. Now he’s considering a smaller bond only for street improvements, which could add as much as $40 a year to an average homeowner’s property taxes. But perhaps one thing Valley residents detest more than their crumbled streets and sidewalks is the thought of new taxes beyond the typical $5,000-plus in annual property taxes owners of a median-priced home pay today. “Right now, I think it’s going to be a hard sell unless somebody comes up with a plan,” said Bruce Ackerman, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley. “The average taxpayer feels when they pay taxes, it ought to guarantee certain levels of service, and maintenance is part of that.” But the Valley’s infrastructure is crumbling because the city never funded its public works projects at adequate levels, nor did it require developers 50 years ago to install basic amenities like sidewalks and streetlights that would be mandated today. As the area’s population soared to nearly 1 million people by the mid-1960s, basic services never kept pace. Now, if you want city services, you pretty much have to pay for them. All those stretches of the Valley that never got streetlights when the homes were built won’t be getting them unless residents form assessment districts and pay more than $1,500 apiece to have lights installed. It’s the same with sidewalks. There’s no plan to replace the Valley’s dirt paths with concrete because the city says it’s the property owners’ responsibility to put them in if the developer failed to do so years ago. To fix a broken sidewalk, residents can wait up to 80 years for city crews to get around to it. Or they can get bumped up the list if they agree to pay half the price – about $1,300 per household – as other cities are doing. But that program proved so popular in its first year that it’s now closed to new applicants until July 1, when crews aim to be finished with the 535 contracts residents signed when the program opened. Residents and neighborhood groups can hire city crews on overtime – for a few hundred dollars a shot – to fix a specific problem under a program started last year. “It’s the situation. What do you do? You sit and wait. You do a share program or you put it in yourself,” said Albert Piantanida, president of the Arleta Neighborhood Council. “You got areas that don’t have lights. It’s pretty standard in the East Valley … It always comes down to, `We’ll get to you.”‘ Underground, the Valley has other challenges. Even with extensive sewer system repairs after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, the Valley’s pair of main sewer lines will not be adequate to carry the projected 20 percent increase in wastewater over the next 15 years. The city is in the midst of planning a massive new sewer line that is already being met by protests from some residents. Similarly, the Valley needs what some say could be billions of dollars worth of storm water improvements to clean up the “urban slobber” that gets carried to the beach. But at least those projects – unlike streets and sidewalks – have a steady funding stream from user fees paid by property owners to redeem a $500 million bond approved by voters in 2004 for initial stormwater improvements. The Valley’s streets, which support the sprawling suburb in auto-dependent L.A., stand as one of the most glaring examples of the decades of government neglect. Despite phenomenal growth in the post-World War II era, when the city’s street system grew from 2,500 miles to 6,500 miles – primarily from Valley development – street resurfacing plans remained unchanged at 50 miles a year until the mid-1980s. Without upkeep, two-thirds of the city’s streets now need to be resurfaced or completely rebuilt – a problem seen citywide, city officials said. Street Services Director Bill Robertson says it’s a “crapshoot” when a street will get resurfaced, noting that his own block in the northeast Valley hasn’t been redone since his home was built in 1953. Even more, the bulk of the street paving budget goes to prevent mediocre roads from getting worse – infuriating residents who can’t understand why their pothole-filled 50-year-old street can’t get a fresh coat of asphalt. Robertson hopes public support will mount for a more comprehensive paving program. In the meantime, he wants the city’s neighborhood councils to compile a list of priorities to help decide which streets get repaved. Scores of residents, like North Hollywood homeowner Juan Gonzalez, have bought their own bags of asphalt or concrete to patch up the disrepair in front of their homes. The asphalt-patch job he poured himself, then pressed down with his car, isn’t holding so well, and he’s had enough of the dust that wafts up in the summer and mud that comes with the winter rains. He expects more and thinks his taxes should cover the bill, even if the city says they don’t. “It doesn’t look nice, especially in a neighborhood where the average homes go for $500,000 and up,” Gonzalez said. “The neighborhood is a very beautiful neighborhood. It’s just that this makes it look ugly.”160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORE11 theater productions to see in Southern California this week, Dec. 27-Jan. 2Some neighborhoods don’t mind the rural feel that comes from dirt roads and darkened streets. Others even take advantage of the shortcomings, extending their lawns where sidewalks should go. But plenty of residents resent the run-down swaths of an otherwise vibrant Valley, fearing the disrepair lowers the value of their now-$500,000 homes and contributes to crime. It’s not just the broken, potholed streets like Sanders’ that swallow car wheels like they did during last winter’s rains. It’s the 80-year wait for a sidewalk repair. The 38 percent of Valley streets that never got lights. The 30 percent of the Valley freeway system that was never built, leading to horrendous traffic logjams. Underground, there’s the 80-year-old sewer system that needs a new trunk line, and the storm-water systems that need to be built to prevent more flooding and pollution.