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The more San Diego’s leaders dig into problems with its roads and infrastructure repair process, the more challenges emerge.
The city is falling $12.6 million short each year in simply maintaining its streets, buildings and storm drains in their current state of disrepair, San Diego’s independent budget analyst told a council committee Wednesday. If the city wants make the next step and actually improve its infrastructure, it could be short as much as $100 million a year, the analyst said.
Those numbers are just some of the startling statistics that emerged from a three-hour City Council committee hearing Wednesday dedicated entirely to infrastructure repairs. More than anything else, the hearing showed that fixing San Diego’s broken roads will take a tremendous investment of time, money and bureaucratic streamlining.
“You’re not going to come out of this overnight,” Councilman Todd Gloria said.
Take Mayor Jerry Sanders’ current plan to finance repairs. He’s borrowed $100 million already and wants to borrow $500 million more over the next five years.
The problem with that approach, as the budget analyst highlighted, is that the city can’t use loan money for regular street maintenance. While it can repave a road, it can’t just fill in a crack. So the city risks spending an unprecedented amount in remaking its infrastructure, but not having the everyday money to take care of basic maintenance.
“Without adequate ‘on-going’ funding, the city could find itself in a situation similar to today — a large ‘catch-up’ funding requirement with limited resources to address the problem,” the IBA presentation said.
The committee hearing wasn’t all doom and gloom.
It’s taken a long time for the city to award construction contracts, one of the biggest problems cited for the sluggish pace of road and infrastructure repairs.
In July, Sanders reversed a decision he made five years ago and returned the authority to implement repair contracts to the public works department.
Since the switch, department officials said, the city has cut contract processing times in half. It now takes three months.
“That’s astounding,” Councilman Kevin Faulconer said.
More changes could be on the way.
Sanders’ office presented a laundry list of proposals to streamline the city’s approval process for infrastructure repairs. Public works staff estimated the changes could shave six months to a year off the current timeline and save between $10,000 and $100,000 per project.
The mayor wants to:
1) Reduce the number of times City Council needs to approve an individual project.
2) Increase the dollar amounts of contracts the mayor can approve without council approval.
3) Reduce the number of contracts needed to implement repairs.
4) Eliminate an environmental review that the mayor believes duplicates state law.
5) Reduce public outreach requirements for parks projects.
6) Allow the city to transfer remaining cash from projects completed under budget to other projects without council approval.
Contracting industry groups spoke in favor of Sanders’ plans during the hearing, and council members sounded amenable to the requests.
“I’m absolutely going to err on the side of these changes today because the current system is not working,” Faulconer said.
I’ve taken a long look at the city’s repair process over the past two months, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an expert on municipal contracting. Public works staff detailed their proposed changes in these two linked reports. I’d love to hear reactions in the comments section of this post or via email from anyone with expertise on these issues.
Wednesday’s hearing could represent a key moment in reversing decades of San Diego’s infrastructure neglect. It showed that all elements of city leadership and bureaucracy — Sanders’ office, City Council, city staff, the independent auditor and the independent budget analyst — recognize the depth of the problem. The committee approved a series of recommendations designed to add specificity and transparency to repair goals.
Still, significant decisions about acceptable repair standards and funding fixes remain. The committee will have a follow-up hearing on infrastructure repairs in January.
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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