San Diego’s roads need help. No service needs more improvement than streets, residents say.

The city’s mayoral candidates have made fixing roads and other infrastructure central to their platforms. Their task is daunting: The backlog of streets, buildings and storm drain repairs totals $840 million and the size of the entire problem could be billions of dollars more.

And how each candidate says they’ll deal with infrastructure says something bigger about how they’ve conducted their campaign as a whole.

City Councilman Carl DeMaio has a comprehensive, thorough and detailed plan and is relying on a populist solution to pay for it. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher has shown he knows just enough to offer a credible alternative and is emphasizing his leadership skills to implement it.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has yet to put together a plan, but says her management history shows she can resolve the problem. Congressman Bob Filner, who didn’t respond to numerous interview requests, hasn’t developed any detailed policy proposals.

Over the last several weeks, my reporting has found that three overriding issues frustrate the city’s ability to make needed fixes. It doesn’t have an efficient way to spend the money it has, doesn’t have a handle on exactly what’s broken and doesn’t have enough funding to pay for everything.

In a campaign where infrastructure might take a backseat only to pensions, the major candidates face questions about how they’ll pay for their big plans to fix San Diego’s troubled roads, buildings, sidewalks and storm drains.

What They Want To Do

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DeMaio has laid out his ideas with the most specificity.

His plan relies on competition between the public and private sector. He proposes creating four different work crews, two from the city and two from the private sector, to maintain an equal group of roads as they see fit. After two years, DeMaio will use the results to handle the entire streets budget.

He also has a two-part proposal to address one of the most significant problems City Auditor Eduardo Luna indentified in his review of the city’s repair process: No one is accountable to make sure fixes actually happen.

DeMaio wants a full overhaul of city bureaucracy with one of his deputies in charge of infrastructure repairs. He also wants an auditor to oversee and ensure his administration meets repair targets.

DeMaio prides himself on his details and derides his competition for being superficial.

“It’s kind of comical for others to say that they want to lead the city based on a one-sentence line that says ‘fully fund deferred maintenance,’” the councilman said. “Well, hello Captain Obvious. That’s what we’ve heard from politicians for the past 25 years and our city is in a complete mess. That’s not new, that’s not innovative and that’s not leadership.”

Fletcher’s plan relies on fixing the bureaucratic problems that Luna has identified and the force of his own personality. He will put a deputy in charge of fully assessing the city’s infrastructure network, prioritizing repairs and setting deadlines for fixes. He’s also asking voters to trust that he will be able to implement the changes needed and be accountable for them.

He stresses that his record of accomplishment in the state Legislature shows that he can execute.

“You could have all the plans in the world,” Fletcher said. “But if you can’t implement them, and you can’t get people to work with you, they’re pointless.”

Dumanis doesn’t yet have a plan. She said she’s examining how other cities maintain their roads and infrastructure. She declined to give specific examples, but said she likes the system the New York Police Department uses to address crime trends. The department gathers and analyzes data to reveal chronic failures and Dumanis envisions a similar process could identify San Diego’s infrastructure problems.

Beyond that, she’s asking voters trust her management style and record in office to resolve the issues.

“I bring people to the table,” Dumanis said. “I look at problems and issues particularly with respect to doing things within government more efficiently and effectively. I’m making government work right now.”

How They Would Pay For It

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plan to fund road and infrastructure repairs relies on $500 million in loans over the next five years. But none of Sanders’ potential successors — the ones who would actually be responsible for taking out most of the loans — fully embraced that strategy.

Both Dumanis and Fletcher said that they wanted significant improvements in the city’s pace of spending before they committed to that amount in loans, the key problem highlighted in our special report this month.

“Until we can spend the money we have,” Dumanis said, “there’s no sense in looking at getting more money.”

Fletcher said he would prioritize spending for infrastructure and public safety above all other city services.

DeMaio wants to dedicate most or all of the city’s projected revenue growth over the next five years to infrastructure repairs. He believes that will raise $335 million to $497 million.

DeMaio plans to turn to a ballot measure to secure that funding. It’s a common DeMaio tactic, having tried to qualify initiatives for last November’s election and next June’s. This initiative, likely for November 2012, will ask voters to guarantee that revenue growth will go toward financing infrastructure repairs.

None of the three candidates advocated tax increases to pay for repairs.

What Stands In Their Way

When Vlad Kogan first heard DeMaio’s infrastructure plan it reminded him of failed policies of past mayors.

Kogan, a political scientist and co-author of a new book on San Diego politics, said former mayors Susan Golding and Dick Murphy tried to lock in money for their pet issues, police and libraries. But it didn’t work because they ignored that the cost of other services grow over time, too.

“I think it’s a shell game,” Kogan said.

DeMaio said his plan differs from those in the past because he’ll have a voter mandate. Still, unless the City Council is willing to place DeMaio’s plan on the ballot, he’ll have to qualify his infrastructure initiative and then campaign to pass it at the same time he’s potentially fundraising and campaigning in the mayoral runoff.

Getting something on the ballot is expensive. DeMaio has estimated the current pension reform initiative cost more than $1 million just to attempt to qualify for the ballot. Another recent proposed initiative spent more than $300,000 on gathering signatures and failed to make the ballot.

More than any other candidate, Fletcher is relying on detailed assessments of city facilities to execute his repair plans. But these are expensive, too.

San Francisco’s capital program director Brian Strong said his city spent “several million dollars” to fully assess its park and recreation facilities, something that hasn’t happened in San Diego. Other methods of identifying repair needs can be much cheaper, Strong said, but they aren’t as thorough.

Fletcher said he didn’t know how much it would cost to assess all facilities. But he said this funding was essential, especially if the city is planning on borrowing a substantial sum to finance repairs.

“If you have potentially hundreds of millions of dollars to execute a plan, I think you can find the money to write the plan,” Fletcher said.

At this point, Dumanis has nothing beyond her general approach to the infrastructure problem. But funding concerns stymie her efforts, too. Asked if she could guarantee enough money to finance all the repairs needed she said, “That is a question that can’t be answered. You can’t guarantee anything, especially in this troubled economic time. I think that you get in there and you look at what you have and you get to work and get it done.”

The Bottom Line

All three major Republican candidates for mayor say fixing San Diego’s infrastructure is one of their top priorities. Beyond that, it’s a substance versus style debate. DeMaio has by far the most comprehensive plan of the three. But Fletcher and Dumanis argue their records and backgrounds show they are much better positioned to implement changes needed to the city’s repair process. All of them, however, face major questions about how they’ll pay for their proposals.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for 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 or 619.550.5663.

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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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