If fixing roads were easy, it wouldn’t take San Diego as long as it has to make repairs. We’ve been writing about the city’s spending struggles all week through the lens of a $100 million loan it received in March 2009. But the city’s long-standing neglect of infrastructure raises many complications beyond just one pot of money.

To help you better understand these complexities, here are two facts and two myths about San Diego’s repair backlog.

Statement: The city needs $840 million right now to fix its broken streets, storm drains and buildings.

Fact or Myth? Myth.

It’s true that the city has totaled the cost to fix all streets, storm drains and buildings to be $840 million. Outside groups have used a similar figure to estimate the money needed to resolve the backlog.

But when maintaining infrastructure, the goal isn’t to eliminate the entire problem all at once.

“No organizations do that, even the five-star hotels,” said Dave Jarrell, San Diego’s former public works chief.

Instead, the city aims to maintain roads and other infrastructure at a consistent level of service. That takes a consistent schedule of funding and repaving. If the city stuck to a schedule, it would save a lot of money. A dollar of regular road maintenance eliminates the need to spend $6 to $14 to reconstruct a failed street, an audit recently said.

But the city is behind on this goal, too.

As we noted in our story, the city currently plans to keep 45 percent of its roads in good condition, typically pothole-free, and maintain buildings and storm drains at a similar level. While it won’t take $840 million to reach that goal, the cost remains staggering.

Public works officials estimated the city would need $500 million more in loans over the next five years to get and maintain that level of service. After loan funding dries up, the city will have to find the money somewhere else to make sure it stays on schedule.

Statement: The city’s infrastructure repair problems go beyond the $100 million loan.

Fact or Myth? Fact.

The slow pace of spending the $100 million loan provided a window to explain San Diego’s larger repair problems. It shouldn’t be surprising that the city has trouble spending other pots of money, too.

Regional transportation dollars aren’t being spent quickly, either, our media partners at NBC 7 San Diego found this month.

At a recent council hearing, a city engineer estimated that “several hundred million” in unspent public works dollars remained in city coffers, mostly for water and sewer infrastructure.

“Several hundred million dollars,” Council President Tony Young repeated.

“That right there is a double whammy,” Young continued. “The public doesn’t get to see the benefit of the tax dollars that are put into the project. People don’t get to work on the project. Obviously, it’s very frustrating as a council member.”

Statement: The city isn’t doing anything about repair delays.

Fact or Myth: Myth.

Folks commenting on our original story on road repairs are taking city leaders to task for their failure to fix San Diego’s infrastructure. While leaders haven’t done enough, every branch of government and major oversight office has attempted to make meaningful changes to the repair process.

This summer, the Mayor’s Office switched the departments that handle public works contracting in an effort to shorten the time it takes to start construction. (This move undid a change Sanders made five years prior.)

City Auditor Eduardo Luna has detailed struggles with road and capital improvement repairs in three separate reports, and is planning an audit of contracting. The mayor, however, doesn’t agree with Luna’s primary suggestion, a city department that would centralize infrastructure repairs.

The City Council, notably Councilmen Carl DeMaio and Todd Gloria, have pushed for greater discussion of infrastructure issues over the past two years. Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who heads the Audit Committee, plans to bear down on Luna’s recommendations in the coming months.

And Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin has long pushed to include the infrastructure repair backlog in the city’s projected budget deficits.

Statement: If the city borrows money to repair streets, it has to pay a lot in interest.

Fact or Myth: Fact.

Sanders’ decision to pay for street and infrastructure repairs with loans springs from the strain on San Diego’s day-to-day budget. Simply put, the money hasn’t been there to fund repairs with cash. But borrowing comes at a cost.

The city expects to pay more than $200 million over 30 years to pay back the first $100 million loan it received in March 2009. With plans to borrow $500 million more over the next five years, infrastructure loan payments could reach $44 million annually for almost a quarter century.

Overall, the city could be making loan payments through 2046 with the total owed topping $1.3 billion.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

Like VOSD on Facebook.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.