When he was elected, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said at a press conference last month, the city’s streets had deteriorated to levels he called unacceptable.

“Not only was it an embarrassment, but public safety was at risk,” Sanders said.

But under Sanders’ tenure the city’s streets have gotten worse.

A voiceofsandiego.org analysis shows that the city’s 2,800-mile road system, a top concern for San Diegans, has further deteriorated since Sanders has been in office, a situation fueled in part by a failure to fund road repairs at proposed levels.

Roads have gotten worse even though the city has spent on average more than $22 million annually on the two primary methods of street repair in the last three years. That’s more than 6.5 times what was spent in former Mayor Dick Murphy’s last budget in 2006.

And even with Sanders’ plans to further increase street spending over the next two years, city Street Division statistics indicate the city’s repairs won’t be enough to have kept the road network from degrading over his tenure.

A January 2008 Street Division estimate says the city needs to make 302 miles of minor road repairs and 52 miles of major road repairs annually to keep roads from getting worse. The city hasn’t done either.

The VOSD analysis shows:

  • The city hasn’t kept up with the mayor’s promises on street repairs. Only 60 percent of the major repairs pledged over Sanders’ first three full years in office, which ended last year, have been completed or are underway.
  • Over the last three years, the city has allowed the road system to further degrade substantially. It has completed or issued contracts for just 18 percent of the minor repairs and 39 percent of the major repairs needed to maintain the status quo, using the Street Division estimate as a benchmark.
  • Major street repairs planned in the next two years likely won’t allow the city to catch up with past failures, the Street Division estimate indicates. Even if the city does all the work scheduled this year and next, it still would need to make 1,000 more miles of minor repairs and 17 more miles of major repairs to restore roads to their condition before Sanders took office.

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City officials agree that San Diego’s streets have gotten worse since voters elected Sanders. They blame a lack of money.

“If you say, why are our streets worse today than they were three years ago?” said Mario Sierra, the city’s general services director, who oversees the Street Division. “We’re not funded at the level that we need to be able to address our needs.”

In 2007, the city completed seven more miles of major road repair than it had planned. But in 2008 and 2009, it completed less than half of the 120 miles it had pledged to complete.

But Sierra said he expected road conditions to be better than they were when Sanders took office once the city finishes a massive road repair effort scheduled to be completed next summer. He called the department’s 2008 estimate outdated and inaccurate, but refused to provide any other statistics. He said he would release the data in advance of a City Council committee hearing in June.

Further, Sierra added, the city’s street repair problems predate Sanders’ tenure.

“Since I have been with the city, I have no knowledge that the city has ever funded the street network at a level that would be considered sufficient,” said Sierra, a 21-year employee. “But what I can say is that this is the highest level of funding that I have ever seen in the history of the city.”

The VOSD analysis used the 2008 Street Division estimate as a benchmark for the city’s annual street maintenance requirements. The analysis doesn’t account for further street degradation from streets in years where required repairs aren’t completed, or improvements in years when the backlog is reduced. The city won’t be able to assess road repair efforts during Sanders’ tenure until its next full evaluation scheduled for 2011.

Much of the current funding for major road repair comes from a bond issued to help fix the city’s aging infrastructure.

The source of that money was the center of a City Hall feud between the mayor and former City Attorney Mike Aguirre, with Aguirre refusing to sign off on the borrowing plans because of questions he had over their legality.

Sanders and streets officials said they weren’t able to make good on the previous pledges because of Aguirre’s resistance.

“When the former city attorney did not sign the document, we did not get that funding,” said Hasan Yousef, Sierra’s deputy.

The city eventually did borrow the money after Jan Goldsmith replaced Aguirre. Now, the city plans to make major repairs on 134 miles of streets using $46.9 million in bond money over the next two years.

San Diego’s deteriorating streets are part of what is an overall worsening infrastructure backlog. Recent estimates put the city’s cost to eliminate the backlog of crumbling infrastructure like streets, sidewalks and storm drains at $800 million to $900 million.

New figures are expected to come to a council committee next month as part of a comprehensive look at the city’s infrastructure backlog.

Councilman Carl DeMaio has been one of the council’s most vocal proponents of increased road and other infrastructure funding. He said the city needs a plan for addressing road repair and make sure it didn’t lose ground each year.

“Do we have a good way to measure and report our infrastructure deficit?’ DeMaio said. “And how can you tell us with certainty that our investment this year will at the very least maintain our infrastructure if not improve it? Those questions, until they’re answered, I’m troubled.”

But the city’s endemic budget problems won’t make the process easy. The city had planned to issue another bond, which would include more funding for city road repairs, next year. It isn’t, city Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone has said, because it doesn’t have enough money.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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