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San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer asked a group of his pals to investigate the state of the city’s roads and other infrastructure.
For the most part, they have reached a conclusion that Faulconer still hasn’t: The city needs to spend more money than it currently plans to fix streets. A lot more.
During his transition into office, Faulconer gathered eight local business and labor leaders and transit advocates to examine his ideas for dealing with the city’s crumbling infrastructure, environment and water reliability. In their report released last week, the advisers endorsed many of the mayor’s plans. But they barely mentioned the elephant in the room of how to pay for it all.
The city’s backlog of infrastructure repairs currently stands at nearly $1 billion, and the true cost could be two or three times higher. Faulconer proposed spending half the city’s annual growth from tax revenues on infrastructure and borrowing roughly $100 million a year for repairs. The borrowing strategy, however, is tied up in litigation and the city’s independent budget analyst says the method is unsustainable.
Some city leaders have discussed a $1 billion-plus, voter-approved megabond to finance fixes. Faulconer opposes the megabond, and doesn’t have plans to raise that kind of money another way.
The people on Faulconer’s own transition team think the mayor should find some.
I asked all eight members of Faulconer’s infrastructure group if the mayor needed to spend more money on infrastructure than his plans currently call for. Of the six people who responded, five said yes and the other said he wasn’t sure. Here’s what I asked the group:
1. Do you believe the city needs more money to repair/build infrastructure than what’s currently in Mayor Faulconer’s plan? (Please answer with either a “yes” or “no.”)
2. If yes, how should the city get that money? If no, according to the most recent estimates, the city’s infrastructure repair backlog is nearly $1 billion with some thought the real number could be double or triple that amount. The infrastructure borrowing mechanism the mayor supports is currently tied up in litigation and regardless, the IBA says that approach is unsustainable in the long term. What specifics or data can you point to to show that the mayor’s approach will solve the problem?
Here’s what they said (responses have been edited lightly for style):
Aimee Faucett, Vice President, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Chairwoman of Faulconer’s Infrastructure Subcommittee
1. Yes. Mayor Faulconer’s initiative to direct 50 percent of all new major general fund revenue growth to infrastructure is a vital step towards addressing our city’s infrastructure needs, including but not limited to streets, sidewalks, park and recreation facilities, neighborhood branch libraries, storm water runoff. However, we will need more money to not only completely address our current infrastructure needs, but also to ensure we have the funds on a long-term basis so we don’t find ourselves in the situation we are today.
2. We as a community including business, labor, neighborhood and environmental advocates need to come together with our city leaders to identify funding that will efficiently address our current and future needs and then ultimately put it to the voters to decide. This is not an easy task. In the meantime, Mayor Faulconer needs to address the streamlining issues within the city as an organization to ensure that current funds available are spent in an efficient manner that will benefit our neighborhoods. For example, the mayor has already committed to conduct a needs assessment of our streets, sidewalks, and buildings, will implement the use of software to monitor conditions and coordinate repairs. He plans to create a multi-year capital improvement plan and will improve internal coordination on street repairs, use open data to track infrastructure spending online and will expedite the contracting process.
Vince Mudd, Chief Operating Officer, Carrier Johnson
2. We don’t have enough money to fix all our problems. The public very rarely gets to decide what the option is that they want.
I’m a big fan of identifying what the cost is and then letting the public decide the way to pay for it.
Michael Zucchet, General Manager, San Diego Municipal Employees Association
1. Yes. The IBA said it best in her review of the city’s most recent 5-year financial outlook: “New revenue sources will soon need to be identified to fund our vast deferred capital and infrastructure needs … Motivated by a desire to avoid increased service fees and/or assessments to citizens, the city has used general fund backed lease revenue bonds (which do not require voter approval) as its primary means of financing critical projects for the last 20 years … the city must consider pursuing alternative sources of revenue for projects.”
2. I trust that leaders like (Councilman) Mark Kersey, (Council President) Todd Gloria, Kevin Faulconer and others are working to figure that out. The mechanism, timing, politics and coalition building related to any attempt to secure new revenue are obviously important, and those factors need to be carefully considered to maximize the chance of success.
My observation is that a good example from San Diego’s recent past is TransNet, the half-cent sales tax for local transportation projects that was extended (for another 40 years) by San Diego County voters in 2004. That campaign laid out in explicit detail what the needs were, how much money would be raised, where the money would go, which projects in which neighborhoods would be funded first, etc. The city of San Diego could follow a similar model. The question that needs to be put to voters in an honest and straightforward way is, do you want to help pay for what needs to be done?
Sharon Cloward, President, San Diego Port Tenants Association
1. Yes. Of course more funding is needed to fully implement the city of San Diego’s infrastructure needs into the future. However, as a member of the mayor’s infrastructure committee, I strongly support the mayor’s initiative to have 50 percent of incoming general fund revenue be directed to infrastructure projects and maintenance, as this is what the citizens of San Diego have been wanting for years. Not only does building and repairing of infrastructure improve our economy, it improves the quality of life.
2. At the Port Tenants, we represent a wide array of businesses that support families regionally. Our community and regional stakeholders have a responsibility to work alongside the leadership of the city of San Diego to determine strategic, efficient funding mechanisms that will enable future infrastructure demands.
In our committee meetings, we discussed the mayor’s plans to monitor infrastructure conditions and needed repairs by way of software integration. This software integration will be data collection that is an efficient and important step to transparently track the city’s spending. I am confident the mayor and his colleagues will work diligently with the IBA to address concerns, mitigate sustainability issues and improve the city of San Diego for years to come. Lastly, it is important to note the mayor has, and will continue to, work in an inclusive manner with regional, diverse stakeholders to seek common solutions for the betterment of the place we all call home. At the end of the day, we all want the same thing for our families.
Elyse Lowe, Deputy Director, Circulate San Diego
2. The mayor’s approach to fund needs assessments, and begin an asset management plan, is certainly the right way to start. Without those, he won’t be able to clearly communicate how great the needs are. Once the city has defined its desired service levels, or desired maintenance milestones, only then will we really know how much revenue is needed each year. After the assessments are completed, the mayor will need to build consensus to find ways to create a long-term, ongoing local revenue solution for funding and maintaining transportation maintenance. This could be accomplished with a local infrastructure bond, or a sales tax measure. It certainly isn’t going to come from the state or federal government.
The IBA’s (regional transportation plan) report shows the lease-leaseback revenue is actually not enough to fund the ongoing, long-term infrastructure improvements we need. The city will also need to evaluate how transportation patterns are changing over time due to infill development, changing demographics and a desire for healthier commutes. With increased access to transportation choices like biking and transit, and even carsharing, will we still need all the expensive road expansion infrastructure planned over the last 10 years?
Gary Gallegos, Executive Director, SANDAG
Your question is not an easy yes or no question. During the couple of meetings I attended, I suggested the need for a good asset management tool or a pavement management tool in the case of pavements to help the city understand their needs. This is important because a $1 billion backlog is a much different problem than a $2 billion or $3 billion backlog.
Additionally, the city did not get into this backlog overnight, and knowing how much and how bad will also help them figure out a reasonable timeline to reduce the backlog. It should also be noted that it is not always an issue of more money, sometimes it can also be an issue of how you are investing the dollars you have. In the case of pavements as an example, a strategy of not just repairing the streets with most need but investing a portion of their current resources on streets where the life of the pavement can be increased should be considered. While a strategy like this may not place total focus on the worst streets, it can help slow down the backlog growth and be cost effective in the long run.
The economy also plays a role on the resources currently available to the city. In the case of TransNet we have seen about a 6 percent growth from last year. So before deciding how the city should get more money, it needs to understand how big the problem is and develop a plan and timeline to solve the problem.
The other Faulconer infrastructure committee members, Lani Lutar and Kristen Victor, either declined to comment or couldn’t be reached.