Three things have become clear in Mayor Jerry Sanders’ stewardship of San Diego’s roads in the final year of his term.

1.) Streets are worse.

2.) The city doesn’t spend enough money to keep them from degrading even further every year.

3.) The Mayor’s Office takes no responsibility for either of these failures.

And now San Diego’s road repair problems have reached breathtaking new depths, engineering officials revealed at a City Council committee hearing Wednesday.

Simply maintaining the status quo would cost $160 million a year. That’s more than the annual budgets of the parks and rec, library and environmental services departments combined.

The city’s plan to borrow $500 million won’t provide enough money to reverse the decay or even preserve the status quo. Under its current proposal, the city won’t begin making progress until 2017.

So over the next five years streets, buildings and storm drains will continue to crack, crumble and deteriorate.

“The city has suffered due to years of neglect on infrastructure,” said Tony Heinrichs, the head of the city’s public works department, at the meeting. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

The suffering continues for numerous reasons.

Let’s start with money. The city used to pay cash for repairs out of its day-to-day budget. Now Sanders’ office wants to borrow $500 million from 2013 to 2107 to finance the fixes. This plan requires annual debt payments until 2047. But it’s not enough money.

The city figures it needs $806 million over that time to maintain infrastructure at current levels. Even with all the borrowing plus its own cash, the current budget remains $77 million short.

In other words, San Diego’s infrastructure deficit is so large, the city can borrow a half billion dollars in five years and still need $77 million more to keep its roads from decaying further over that time.

The street problems don’t end with money. As we’ve reported extensively, the city hasn’t proven it can spend the repair dollars it already has. City officials said Wednesday their plans depend on the council approving a lengthy list of reforms designed to streamline the repair process. They also said they’ll need six new employees to handle all the work.

To be sure, Sanders inherited a city that had hit rock bottom. Predecessor Dick Murphy had taken street maintenance funding down to almost nothing by the time he resigned in 2005. Perhaps the current eye-popping realities would seem less harsh if Sanders or his deputies took any responsibility for their own road repair missteps.

Instead the presentation of Wednesday’s report continued the Sanders administration’s practice of blithely talking past its failures to repair enough roads or develop accurate information about the cost.

Less than a year ago, city staffers unveiled an infrastructure repair plan they argued was unprecedented in scope. It included detailed calculations for the cost to improve streets, buildings and storm drains. That financing plan has disappeared.

In its place came the one discussed on Wednesday morning. Instead of making services better, the new plan outlined the enormous price tag to keep streets and other infrastructure at their current levels. Staffers gave little explanation for why they jettisoned last year’s numbers.

“We took a fresh look at what we thought we needed for maintaining what we have,” Heinrichs told the council committee.

This response follows numerous instances in the past five years where Sanders or his staff has dramatically decreased road repair goals without explanation, overestimated construction timelines and taken credit for cutting red tape they had created previously.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Heinrichs referred an interview request to the Mayor’s Office. Sanders’ spokesman Darren Pudgil didn’t respond to that request.

All this information provides something to think about in April when Sanders is expected to announce he’s closed the city’s decade-old ongoing budget deficit. The depth of San Diego’s infrastructure repair problems shows significant work remains until its fiscal issues are solved.

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

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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