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On January 2, 2005 a large sinkhole surfaced on Western Avenue just north of Westmont Avenue. The sinkhole appears to have resulted from severe storms in late December and early January that caused an old corrugated metal pipe, located more than 25 feet below the street surface, to fail

Within a few hours of the appearance of the sinkhole, the City of Rancho Palos Verdes Director of Public Works was on site along with field representatives of Caltrans and the Sanitation District. Western Avenue is a State Highway, and in the area of the sinkhole it lies partly in the City of Los Angeles. Caltrans closed the roadway in both directions between Westmont and Avenida Aprenda. The Sanitation District advised the agency representatives that two of their sewage collection pipelines were hanging in space in the sinkhole and were in danger of breaking. In consultation with the City Manager and the City Attorney, and with ratification by the City Council on January 4, 2005 the City of Rancho Palos Verdes took the lead on the Western/Westmont sinkhole repair. Other affected agencies were advised that the City of Rancho Palos Verdes would file claims for reimbursement after the work was completed. The repair work was completed by the City at a cost of $638,640.

Early in January, the City of Rancho Palos Verdes Public Works Department undertook an investigation of all twelve culvert crossings underneath Western Avenue within the City of Rancho Palos Verdes. As a result of the investigation it was discovered that there were six additional corrugated pipes that may have been damaged during the winter storms. In two cases – just north of Summerland and in the vicinity of the Smart & Final parking lot – the distressed storm drains were accompanied by a sagging roadway. Preliminary research indicated that these metal pipes were probably constructed to carry runoff from unimproved natural drainage channels at the time the original roadway was constructed. Nothing in our research to date would indicate that these old pipes are, or ever were, Rancho Palos Verdes drainage facilities. Rather, they appear to be part of the roadway improvements. Agencies that may have some responsibility for maintenance of these old culvert pipes include Caltrans, Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes. The City’s reports were provided to Caltrans who made the decision to close the northbound lanes of Western Avenue at Summerland on Friday afternoon, January 14, 2005, due to the possibility of imminent failure of the street surface at that location. Since that time, Caltrans has completed the repair of the Summerland culvert and is working on repair of the "Smart & Final" culvert. We have heard unofficially that Caltrans has spent several million dollars on these two repairs.

Director of Public Works Dean Allison, presented a report, including the above findings, to a group of representatives from Caltrans, the County and the City of Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon, January 19, 2005. Among those present was staff from Supervisor Knabe’s office as well as Councilwoman Hahn’s office. The City of Rancho Palos Verdes advised those present that the City was committed to completing the repairs on Western at Westmont, but after the work was completed, claims for reimbursement from other agencies may be filed. Director Allison also provided each agency with a copy of the results of the video inspection of the twelve culverts conducted by the City’s contractor as well as the result of a subsurface investigation to determine the locations and size of voids below Western Avenue at Summerland. At that point the City announced that it would not take the lead on any further Western Avenue repair projects, including the Summerland sinkhole. The City further requested that we receive from all agencies any documentation that establishes the ownership and maintenance responsibilities for these old culverts. These points were also made in a letter to the Caltrans District Director with copies to Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles.

Caltrans representatives agreed, at the January 19, 2005 meeting, to take over the Western Avenue/Summerland repair moving forward on the project as soon as they could bring in a contractor. In a conference call with City of Rancho Palos Verdes representatives on May 3, 2005, Caltrans District Director Douglas Failing indicated that the drainage pipes under Western Avenue were the responsibility of Caltrans.

It was anticipated, by both Caltrans and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes, that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) would reimburse both the City and Caltrans for the emergency repair work that was performed. However, to protect our interests, we also filed claims for storm damage to the Western Avenue pipelines at Westmont, Summerland and Smart & Final and advised the City of Los Angeles and the County to do the same pending a final resolution of ownership issues that may affect federal reimbursement claims. Surprisingly, the City recently received a check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for $559,000 in partial reimbursement for the cost of the sinkhole repair project at Western and Westmont, even though we don’t believe we own the damaged facilities and that reimbursement should come from the FHWA. 


Over the past weeks our confidence that we will be reimbursed for the money we spent on the Western/Westmont sinkhole and storm drain repair has been significantly eroded.  Apparently, the FHWA may soon issue a report that the storm damage along Western Avenue occurred not due to the storm, but due to deferred maintenance of the culverts. If this is the case, Caltrans, who has performed the repair on the damaged pipes on Western/Summerland and at Western adjacent to Smart & Final, may come after the City for reimbursement for the cost of that work if the federal agencies (FEMA and FHWA) decline to pay.

If the federal agencies decide not to classify the roadway and drainage repairs as "Storm Damage," the issue of who owns the pipes may again become significant.  As we have previously discussed the City believes that the culverts belong to Caltrans, but we have been unable to locate any records that resolve this issue and none have been provided in response to the City’s prior request.

Among several issues we are sorting through on all the Western Avenue drainage crossings are ownership and maintenance responsibility. We believe there are at least nine additional metal pipe crossings that may be subject to failure at any time and need attention before they to become emergency repair projects. The County of Los Angeles, as best we know, originally constructed the roadway and subterranean infrastructure in the mid 1940s. It appears that the roadway became a state highway in 1963. The City incorporated in 1973 and annexed this portion of its current boundaries in 1983. Our maintenance agreement with Caltrans only addresses street sweeping and vegetation removal. Also of significance is that the City of Rancho Palos Verdes and the City of Los Angeles meet along Western Avenue and often, as in the case of the Westmont sinkhole, the boundary is at the centerline of the right-of-way; the City of Los Angeles "owning" the other half. Below the roadbed at the Westmont sinkhole location were the old storm drain of indeterminate ownership and two large sewer lines owned by the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County.

We recently met with officials from the California Office of Emergency Services (OES), Caltrans and the City of Los Angeles to discuss a joint response to the possible denial of denial of FHWA emergency repair funding. All agreed it that the damage to the pipelines on Western Avenue was a result of the winter storms and that we would continue to pursue our funding applications with FHWA. 


At this point we are dealing with a myriad of unclear circumstances. We are trying to avoid missing out on any financial assistance opportunities available to the City or Caltrans as the circumstances are sorted out. If all claims for reimbursement are unsuccessful and Rancho Palos Verdes is required to repay Caltrans for the repairs at Summerland and Smart & Final, we believe the total bill could be as much $5 million. Staff will continue to work to develop the facts that would avoid this result and will endeavor to reach an agreement that will avoid claims and litigation among the various public entities that are involved. However, given the amounts that are at stake; the issue concerning the ownership of the culverts, and FEMA’s focus on the disaster in New Orleans, the outcome of this process is uncertain. We will provide additional updates to the City Council as events unfold.

Respectfully submitted:

Les Evans

City Manager