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We’ve spilled lots of digital ink over the last three weeks explaining why San Diego’s roads, storm drains, sidewalks and city buildings are in such poor condition. They’re potholed, broken and leaky. And the city is struggling to keep pace with needed repairs. The city figures it’ll have to spend $840 million to fix everything.
Here’s a guide to understanding the issue:
• Start with our San Diego Explained segment with media partners NBC 7 San Diego:
In the video, NBC’s Catherine Garcia and I explain that the causes of the city’s road repair problems go beyond its deficit-ridden budgets. San Diego borrowed $100 million in 2009 to fix broken streets, buildings, storm drains and sidewalks. But despite the massive need the city had spent less than half of the $100 million through mid-August.
• In our special report, we detailed the reasons Mayor Jerry Sanders has missed spending and repair deadlines:
Current and past city officials cast the blame far and wide.
It’s the bureaucracy. Awarding repair contracts has taken six to eight months. City Council approval sometimes has taken another three months. And all the design and engineering work took time, too.
It’s the decisions at the top. Five years ago, Sanders switched the departments that handled repair contracts so he could speed up the process. He touted the change as a successful way to cut red tape. But the new process took three months longer. This July, Sanders undid his switch. He touted that change as a successful way to cut red tape, too.
It’s the past. The city didn’t have many shovel-ready projects because it had never spent the money to get them ready. Officials also hadn’t assessed the condition of many facilities. Others they hadn’t examined for years.
• The city’s slow spending has had real impacts on real people. An Otay Mesa woman had to fix her car’s alignment after regularly driving over a road that should have been fixed by now. A police officer has created a makeshift gutter to collect water dripping from an outdated roof in the City Heights police station. Firefighters have had to rescue people trapped in Balboa Park elevators 21 times over the last two years. Those elevators are scheduled for repairs.
• I’ve tried to drive home three points when I’ve talked about the city’s repair problems on the radio and television.
1. History. The city has neglected its infrastructure for so long that it will take a long time to catch up. City officials estimate it will take years and $500 million more to maintain 45 percent of San Diego’s roads in good condition and keep storm drains and buildings at a similar level.
2. Candor. Sanders’ administration hasn’t been straightforward about the spending and repair deadlines it has missed. A retired local engineer told me the main issue with San Diego’s infrastructure repair process was officials’ unrealistic promises, not their spending pace.
3. Scope. The city doesn’t know how many repairs it needs to do because it doesn’t have a thorough accounting of all its infrastructure. The giant sinkhole that recently opened up in University City illustrates the problem. City crews were fixing one decaying storm drain pipe just blocks from another that caused the sinkhole.
That work crews could fix a storm drain blocks from one on the verge of collapse reinforces a key point: The city doesn’t know exactly what’s broken.
• The good news is that just about everyone involved in city government acknowledges the repair problems and wants to do something about improving roads and other infrastructure. That includes the current mayor, council members, mayoral candidates and city agencies.
The mayor’s plan depends on borrowing $500 million more over the next five years, an unprecedented amount of money for repairs.
But his ideas face three issues. The city hasn’t proven it can spend what it has now, and some council members said they want to see improvements before they’ll sign off on the next loan. The borrowing proposal is expensive. City officials estimate that all the loans will saddle the budget with $44 million in annual payments for almost a quarter of a century. And none of the candidates to replace Sanders have fully embraced his strategy. They would be the ones responsible for borrowing most of the money.
• If you want to know what the candidates think, we’ve got you covered. I evaluated the infrastructure ideas of the three major Republican candidates in the race, Carl DeMaio, Bonnie Dumanis and Nathan Fletcher. Democrat Bob Filner doesn’t yet have a plan and declined an interview request. I concluded:
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.
The candidates, including the less well-known ones, also gave us their road repair talking points.
• To take a deeper look into the problems with San Diego’s repair process, I recommend four primary sources. Read two March reports from the public works department that outline the funding needs for roads and other infrastructure. Then read two audits of the city’s streets and capital improvement departments that detail bureaucratic obstacles.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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