San Diego’s Sidewalk Problems, By the Numbers

San Diego’s Sidewalk Problems, By the Numbers

Photo Sam Hodgson

Nick Duich, vice president of H&D Construction, talks to homeowner Mike Anderson about what it would take to install a sidewalk in front of the house he owns.

Monday’s long-awaited discussion on San Diego’s illogical sidewalk rules ended with a promise for another long wait.

Council members on the city’s infrastructure committee pledged to deal with the policy once a team of engineering students finishes walking San Diego’s 5,000 miles of sidewalks to evaluate their condition. Currently, the sidewalk rules give neither the city nor property owners incentive to fix busted sidewalks. The evaluation hasn’t started yet, even though $1 million was allocated in June, and is expected to take a year to complete. Final recommendations on policy fixes won’t come until early 2015 either, Council members said Monday.

In the meantime, city transportation staff gave Council members a three-page report on how screwed up sidewalks are. Here are five of the most eye-popping numbers from the report and Monday’s committee discussion:

200

This is the number of sidewalk repair requests the city receives every month. Most of them are for sidewalks damaged by tree roots, and these repairs cost about $2,500 a pop. Assuming all the sidewalk requests were to fix these problems, it would cost $6 million a year to do it.

$400,000

The amount of money the city currently spends annually on fixing sidewalks damaged by tree roots.

2

Councilman Scott Sherman wanted to know what happened when a resident requested a sidewalk repair for a tree root-damaged sidewalk – unlike other sidewalk problems, the city fixes those caused by trees in the public right of way. The city often will immediately throw asphalt over the sidewalk to limit its liability if someone trips and falls. But permanent fixes don’t happen for a while.

“So if I called in my raised sidewalk in front of my house tomorrow it would take two years before somebody got out there?” Sherman asked John Helminski, a deputy director in the city’s street division.

“It would,” Helminski said.

677

The city has a cost-sharing plan to give homeowners the incentive to repair their sidewalks. In the recent past, it hasn’t been used much. From 2011 to 2013, only 13 property owners used the city’s program, which cuts in half the estimated $10,600 price tag of making sidewalk repairs.

Now, though, the number of people is surging. This year, 14 property owners have already participated in the program and another 87 are on the list. That’s a 677 percent increase this year compared with the last three years combined.

Committee Chairman Mark Kersey credited the uptick to his committee’s efforts to spread the word about infrastructure as well as our blog TheStumblr, which documented busted sidewalks citywide.

$170 million

Broken sidewalks aren’t the only issue. Currently, the city has 425 requests for new sidewalks, like the one outside a San Ysidro high school, on its unfunded needs list. The city estimated it would cost $170 million to install all of them. That number is expected to go up once the sidewalk assessment is done.

No sidewalk fixes or new installations are on the city’s nearly $1 billion estimate of streets, storm drains and buildings in need of repair.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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22 comments
Ari Isaak
Ari Isaak

It seems like the natural place for the City to deal with this is as part of the slurry seal and asphalt overlay paving work. Identified or spec'd out sidewalk issues should be dealt with as part of the contract to fix specific segments of road. It doesn't make much sense to me to hire a contractor to fix the road and leave a busted sidewalk. The contractor certainly has the skillset and tools at their disposal to fix both. I wonder if other municipalities tackle both assets together, whether this has been successful and if there is a good way to qualify costs savings.

Ari Isaak
Ari Isaak subscribermember

It seems like the natural place for the City to deal with this is as part of the slurry seal and asphalt overlay paving work. Identified or spec'd out sidewalk issues should be dealt with as part of the contract to fix specific segments of road. It doesn't make much sense to me to hire a contractor to fix the road and leave a busted sidewalk. The contractor certainly has the skillset and tools at their disposal to fix both. I wonder if other municipalities tackle both assets together, whether this has been successful and if there is a good way to qualify costs savings.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

As far as the costs of a sidewalk repair it depends.
Cost per sq ft concrete. Small jobs require less concrete but are typically more per sq ft. the city requires a minimum of 75 sq ft. ( a section of sidewalk concrete is typically 20 sq ft ...4 ft wide and 5ft between joints)
How much concrete is removed and hauled
how many roots are removed, backfill needed to grade(if any) and compaction.
Ease of job (access, obstacles,required barricades etc.)
IOW each job or job location varies

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

As far as the costs of a sidewalk repair it depends.
Cost per sq ft concrete. Small jobs require less concrete but are typically more per sq ft. the city requires a minimum of 75 sq ft. ( a section of sidewalk concrete is typically 20 sq ft ...4 ft wide and 5ft between joints)
How much concrete is removed and hauled
how many roots are removed, backfill needed to grade(if any) and compaction.
Ease of job (access, obstacles,required barricades etc.)
IOW each job or job location varies

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin

When you have to use so many $$$$ servicing pension debt it squeezes the amount available for these kinds of repairs.
Yet another example of the huge opportunity costs associated with the scheme.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

When you have to use so many $$$$ servicing pension debt it squeezes the amount available for these kinds of repairs.
Yet another example of the huge opportunity costs associated with the scheme.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Mr. Dillon: Any idea what the city pays out annually in legal settlements and judgments for people claiming a sidewalk caused injury? It would be interesting to balance that against the cost of comprehensive repairs, which would apparently be massive. In terms of priorities, sidewalk repairs would be pretty low for me, absent some cost effectiveness argument.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Dillon: Any idea what the city pays out annually in legal settlements and judgments for people claiming a sidewalk caused injury? It would be interesting to balance that against the cost of comprehensive repairs, which would apparently be massive. In terms of priorities, sidewalk repairs would be pretty low for me, absent some cost effectiveness argument.

mike mata
mike mata

What does it cost to repair a sidewalk? $2500 or $10600? If a homeowner gets in with that program, the price goes up? what gives? A break down of these prices would be nice..I think $2500 sounds 'about right' not sure where $10,600 comes into play..is it an average? does it include water mains or something? I'd say $2500 would probably cover about two squares of a sidewalk...just wondering.

Matt Finish
Matt Finish

Good numbers Liam, thanks. Although I am curious about this one:

"repairs cost about $2,500 a pop"

I would love to see a breakdown of that. How many people does it take to fix one? How much are they paid? And how much would a similar job cost in the private sector? That would provide more perspective, although the numbers might be hard to come by.

"Assuming all the sidewalk requests were to fix these problems, it would cost $6 million a year to do it."

$6M is a drop in the bucket in a budget that clears $1B. This is positive proof that our city government is incapable of even the most basic function of governance, infrastructure. They spend more than that on welfare handouts each year.

Matt Finish
Matt Finish subscriber

Good numbers Liam, thanks. Although I am curious about this one:

"repairs cost about $2,500 a pop"

I would love to see a breakdown of that. How many people does it take to fix one? How much are they paid? And how much would a similar job cost in the private sector? That would provide more perspective, although the numbers might be hard to come by.

"Assuming all the sidewalk requests were to fix these problems, it would cost $6 million a year to do it."

$6M is a drop in the bucket in a budget that clears $1B. This is positive proof that our city government is incapable of even the most basic function of governance, infrastructure. They spend more than that on welfare handouts each year.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster

Mr. Giffin: I'm not sure if this is an ideal place to have a debate about pension debt (which is slightly under 10% of the city budget). My understanding is that in theory adjacent homeowners and business owners are responsible for sidewalk repairs in most instances. I am personally a bit mystified as to why the city is doing this 50/50 share system if there is legal obligation on the part of home and business owners to keep the sidewalks in good repair. I wonder why they don't simply require people to meet their obligation through inspection and notice.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Giffin: It has been my understanding for decades that, as the article suggests, the responsibility for sidewalk maintenance lies with the adjacent property owner, not the city. I am gathering that in cases that roots from trees in the public right of way damage the sidewalks, property owners have understandably said to the city, look, you broke it, you fix it. The across the board 50/50 thing seems like a change of policy that happened at some point (don't know if city council approved it or it just happened) to incentivize property owners to do what they were required to do all along. It would be interesting to know if they budgeted this change in policy. As for the trip and falls, according to the article Mr. Dillon posted in reply to my query below, the liability to the city is quite minimal. I have some other thoughts I have posted below in that context.

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

Mr. Giffin: I'm not sure if this is an ideal place to have a debate about pension debt (which is slightly under 10% of the city budget). My understanding is that in theory adjacent homeowners and business owners are responsible for sidewalk repairs in most instances. I am personally a bit mystified as to why the city is doing this 50/50 share system if there is legal obligation on the part of home and business owners to keep the sidewalks in good repair. I wonder why they don't simply require people to meet their obligation through inspection and notice.

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon

Hi Chris- I love when you ask questions I've already written about. Here's my article on legal payouts for sidewalk claims. In short, injuries from sidewalk falls can be gruesome, but sidewalk legal claims don't cost the city much every year. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/04/19/why-sidewalk-falls-dont-lead-to-windfalls/Why Sidewalk Falls Don't Lead to Windfallshttp://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/04/19/why-sidewalk-falls-dont-lead-to-windfalls/Five years ago, Linda Meadows was walking around a Serra Mesa office park during a business trip to San Diego. She remembers looking for a crosswalk and then noticing a big tree. "One minute I was standing," Meadows said this week. "The next minute I...

Liam Dillon
Liam Dillon memberadministrator

Hi Chris- I love when you ask questions I've already written about. Here's my article on legal payouts for sidewalk claims. In short, injuries from sidewalk falls can be gruesome, but sidewalk legal claims don't cost the city much every year. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/04/19/why-sidewalk-falls-dont-lead-to-windfalls/Why Sidewalk Falls Don't Lead to Windfallshttp://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/04/19/why-sidewalk-falls-dont-lead-to-windfalls/Five years ago, Linda Meadows was walking around a Serra Mesa office park during a business trip to San Diego. She remembers looking for a crosswalk and then noticing a big tree. "One minute I was standing," Meadows said this week. "The next minute I...

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Its not a debate Chris. It is simply pointing out that monies committed are unavaiiable elsewhere which is the case. Sidewalks were always part of the general fund maintenance where the city would contract and neighborhoods would have them taken care of at the same time.
Now it is piece by piece.
Its called an opportunity cost.
If the city is responsible for the tree, or the trip hazard, I think the 50/50 is a path of least resistance for the city to address it and the liability. (guessing here)

Chris Brewster
Chris Brewster subscribermember

I was out of town when you wrote that! :-)

That's excellent information and good context. To me this raises a question: If there is no substantial liability exposure, then we are talking about a general safety issue of unknown magnitude (i.e. how many people are injured by busted sidewalks and how serious are the injuries). That needs to be balanced, from a public policy perspective, against the cost of repairs. That is, how much in the way of taxpayer funds do we want to spend on addressing a problem that may be minimal from a safety perspective? It's particularly salient, in my view, considering the potentially huge cost for the city to: a) accept responsibility for sidewalk repair (which may increase liability); and b) do the repairs.

My view is that the issue should be addressed, but there is not a case made that it is urgent (when balanced against myriad unmet needs in the city) and in any case the best way to address it would be better enforcement of the existing policies (i.e. noticing homeowners and businesses to do the repairs).