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The year 2016 is having a bit of a moment right now. Streets, not so much.
Hotel and tourism types are talking about proposing a ballot measure in 2016 to expand San Diego’s Convention Center. Football and U-T San Diego types are talking about a possible ballot measure in 2016 to build a new Chargers stadium. Business and labor types are fighting about a potential measure in 2016 to repeal the city’s minimum wage hike.
November 2016 has long been seen as the best opportunity to pass another citywide measure: a megabond paired with a tax increase to repair the city’s streets, buildings and storm drains. But that idea isn’t feeling much love lately.
For years, city leaders and outside groups have talked about the megabond idea. The price tag to fix the city’s decaying infrastructure is at least $1 billion and, more likely, is double that amount. That number doesn’t count the cost of building new things, such as fire stations or sidewalks.
Also for years, city budget officials have warned that if a bond has any chance of passing, someone has to ask San Diegans what they want. Voters don’t like bonds that have a giant lump sum set aside for things like “parks.” They like bonds that tell them an exact location of a park project in their neighborhood.
This kind of robust public campaign isn’t happening now. Some supporters of a megabond are already talking about it in the past tense.
“I thought 2016 was kind of the sweet spot for this,” said Joe LaCava, who heads a citywide planning umbrella group. “I personally haven’t given up, but I’m not hearing any commitment for it.”
LaCava said that he talked to city leaders about supporting the megabond. Most tell him they’re interested, but don’t want to be in charge of it. They don’t want to propose a tax increase or undertake a substantial community engagement effort without a coalition behind them, he said.
“It’s so carefully calculated that it’s calculated to death and then nothing happens,” LaCava said.
Andrea Tevlin, the city’s budget analyst, has been urging city leaders to figure out how to pay for infrastructure repairs. She told me that addressing the infrastructure problem was the city’s top priority.
Compare that with the other matters taking center stage for 2016.
Economists believe the city will lose money on a football stadium. They shrug at the effects of a Convention Center expansion. And while leaders are suddenly interested in setting broad-based wage policies like the minimum wage hike (or its defeat), street repairs have been on the city’s to-do list all along.
City leaders also are backsliding on other pressing infrastructure issues.
A long-range infrastructure budget set to debut this summer has been delayed. Local attorney Cory Briggs has taken a small, planned infrastructure loan to court, arguing the city needs to get voter approval for it. The $120 million in projects that loan would finance are now on hold. And Mayor Kevin Faulconer is sticking with his infrastructure plan, even though his own advisers believe he needs to support the megabond or figure out another way to spend more on repairs.
LaCava said city leaders’ reluctance to address the infrastructure problem is an admission that the government can’t fix it.
“It’s not exactly something to be proud of as a city,” he said.