San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey’s new plan to deal with streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure is an admission of failure. This is a good thing.

For years, basic questions about the city’s nuts and bolts have been left unanswered. How bad are the city’s sidewalks? What buildings need to be fixed the most? What’s more important to people: a new fire station in Mission Valley or a new drainage system in the same neighborhood? The result has been a clunky system for building and fixing city facilities with little to show for these efforts.

The city doesn’t spend enough each year to keep streets, storm drains and buildings from deteriorating further.

The plan Kersey developed for the first year of the council’s new infrastructure committee doesn’t aim to build new things or even fix broken ones. Instead, it tries to answer these kinds of simple questions. The theory is that City Hall can’t repair anything outside its walls until it deals with the legacy of its own broken processes.

“If we’re going fix this problem, the first thing we need to do is really identify what the full scope of it is,” Kersey said.

The committee, with Kersey as its chair, will hold its first meeting Monday. The other committee members are Sherri Lightner, Marti Emerald and Scott Sherman. Click here for a copy of Kersey’s full plan.

Here are three things you need to know about what the plan tries to do:

Figure Out What You Got

One of the city’s longstanding problems its infrastructure is that it doesn’t know what’s broken.

The city either hasn’t examined assets, such as sidewalks or non-building needs in parks and recreation, or those assessments are out of date, such as many city buildings. Park fixes alone could cost more than $2 billion, according to a city auditor estimate.

Without this kind of information, the city can’t know what it needs to fix. Kersey’s plan calls for assessing all city infrastructure at regular intervals. These evaluations can be costly — think $500,000-plus — but it’s the only new spending the plan calls for in the first year.

Kersey also wants to publish this information in an easy-to-understand annual report card.

Figure Out What You Want

Evaluating city infrastructure tells you the state of things now. But it doesn’t tell you how things could be.

Take roads. Early in former Mayor Jerry Sanders’ first term he pledged to have 75 percent of city streets in good condition, typically pothole free, by the time he left office. By the end of his term, he lowered the bar drastically: He didn’t want roads to get worse than the current 42 percent in good condition. The city doesn’t plan even to meet that reduced target until 2017.

Kersey wants to make the same decisions for each kind of asset the city owns: What condition do people desire for their facilities? He plans to figure this out by holding community meetings and developing better tools to engage the community online, among other ideas. These service goals will determine the city’s spending needs.

Figure Out What You Can Do

Despite nearly a $1 billion infrastructure backlog, the city recently struggled to spend a $100 million loan designated for repairs. It didn’t have the capacity to move projects through its system quick enough.

Sanders and the Council made a series of changes last year designed to speed up the process, but it’s still unclear how much work the city can handle at once.

“If you dropped $1 billion on the city tomorrow, we could not effectively spend that money,” Kersey said.

Kersey wants to evaluate the streamlining reforms already completed and push for more.

The Bottom Line

All of these things — figuring out what the city’s got, figuring out what the public wants and figuring out what the city can do — is designed to lead to one thing. Kersey wants a draft five-year plan for building and maintaining city infrastructure finished by the middle of next year.

That might not sound like a lofty goal. But if it happens, the five-year plan will be the city’s first systematic attempt at addressing its infrastructure challenges in recent memory.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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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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