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San Diego’s leaders made promises about fixing roads and other infrastructure over the past couple years. The promises have routinely outpaced reality.

Roadwork that was supposed to take about a year to finish now is expected to take two years. Tens of millions of dollars in construction contracts were supposed to result in repairs within six months. But it’s taken the city two years to get that amount of money on the street.

I came across these problems during my reporting on San Diego’s road repair efforts and spoke to Lawrence Pierce, a retired civil engineer with four decades of experience with San Diego County governments and businesses. Pierce is heading the local American Society of Civil Engineers’ effort to grade all county infrastructure by next spring.

His message? Repairs take time. Politicians and regular San Diegans need to manage their expectations. Politicians also shouldn’t overpromise.

“There’s competing interests,” Pierce said. “The interests of the elected officials versus reality sometimes.”

My stories found the city had spent less than half of a $100 million infrastructure loan and completed less than 40 percent of the projects it planned after two and a half years.

Pierce pointed to some of the same issues that San Diego officials told me contributed to their spending rate: bureaucratic hurdles and the need to evaluate countless facilities.

After an abysmal spending record at first, the city spent more than $30 million of the loan money last year. Pierce called that rate “a good pace.”

Still, city Auditor Eduardo Luna, who has examined San Diego’s process in detail, found repairs could occur more quickly and efficiently with changes to the bureaucracy.

Pierce, Luna and public works officials all stressed that the city must have a reliable flow of money to keep San Diego’s infrastructure problems from worsening.

Mayor Jerry Sanders addresses that problem with more loans. He expects to borrow $500 million more over the next five years to maintain infrastructure at a consistent level.

Pierce called that proposal “aggressive” because of the difficulties in spending money quickly. Still, he said, the city must continue to make regular headway to address its repair backlog.

“The snowball is rolling down the hill and it’s getting bigger,” Pierce said. “You’ve got to be consistent about throwing money at it and about keeping your focus on it because if you look up and look away, you may go over the cliff.”

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It appears the state and Governor Jerry Brown are having similar problems. From the Los Angeles Times:

The Brown administration is sitting on $9.1 billion in infrastructure bonds that have been sold and are costing the state a ton in debt payments. A rough estimate is $630 million a year.

But the borrowed money is stashed in various drawers throughout the bureaucracy instead of circulating around California creating jobs.

Why? No one I talked to seems to know. They’re trying to find out. Or they’re waiting for someone to tell them.

There’s a vague partial explanation about the state changing its system of disbursing bond money three years ago and not yet adjusting to it. Something like that.

Sounds a lot like bureaucratic inertia. The governor probably needs to kick some butt.

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.

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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...

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