Our city is like a ’67 Mustang with a phenomenal paint job, custom wheels and a high-end sound system, but that hasn’t had an oil change, a tune-up or any engine work since it was purchased. We have incredible weather, beautiful beaches, a vibrant independent craft beer scene and growing presence in the world of mobile telecommunications and biotech. But we are stunted by chronic, woefully inadequate underfunding and neglect of our infrastructure.

To give credit where credit is due, Mayor Jerry Sanders and the current City Council have made understanding this issue a priority. And that has helped. But as citizens we have to be more aware of our collective “checkbook” if our city is to be an innovation leader in the future.

But there is also bad news. We have a minimum $840 million gap between our infrastructure needs and the money to address them. I’m no accountant, but that seems like a very big number. It’s not all in roads — it includes stormwater facilities and city-owned buildings — but a big chunk of it is our streets.

The news gets worse. This number is based in part on a 2007 assessment of our public roads that indicates 18 percent were poor, 45 percent were fair and 37 percent were in good condition. At the Nov. 16, 2011, Land Use and Housing Committee meeting we learned that the updated numbers actually show 25 percent of our roads are poor, 40 percent are fair and only 35 percent are in good condition. It is simple math that a higher percentage of poor quality streets mean that this original estimate based on the 2007 assessment needs to be revised up.

An important part to understand is that the estimate of what it costs to address this issue is based on achieving one of two specific service levels. A service level is just shorthand for how many of our streets should be in good vs. fair vs. poor condition. The question we have to ask is, how our officials set those levels and what the trade-offs are? Are we aiming too low to make the budget numbers work? Would a focus of more resources on the worst streets be a better long-term decision? What is the impact of the debt we incur as a city if we choose to bond for the money to do this work? And if the city changes the service levels we need to achieve what is the impact of those changes?

The mayor’s State of the City address is on Jan. 11 and hopefully he will lay out a plan to tackle this massive issue. Pension reform may help our budget in the long term, but it won’t close the whole gap.

We can’t solve this problem by adding another layer of bureaucracy to the complicated network that exists or by browbeating our current city employees. Maybe we need to empower our city transportation and public works people with more support and more discretion. It’s not clear what the answer is, but hearing what our elected officials have planned is important.

With a minimum $840 million hole, we have difficult choices to make to address these issues. If we want to attract new businesses and help existing ones grow and we want to bring in more tourism we really need each of our elected officials to prioritize these infrastructure needs. If our city is to be great, and not the equivalent of a neglected muscle car, we need to focus our elected officials on fixing all this neglect before taking on new major obligations.

Omar Passons lives in North Park.

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I live a fortunate life and want to help people live with dignity and opportunity.

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