This story is a part of The People’s Reporter, a feature where the public can submit questions, readers vote on which questions they want answered and VOSD investigates.
The question from Mitch of Mission Hills: “How are city streets being repaired? And who determines the allocations of scarce resources?”
To submit your question or vote on our next topic, click here.
As the city has redoubled efforts to repair roads, many San Diegans have questioned why some crumbling streets still seem to get overlooked.
The answer varies by the street.
The common denominator is the city’s street division, which holds sway over which projects get done, how they get done and when they get done.
Kristy Reeser, deputy director of the city’s street division, said many factors guide the department’s decision-making.
But the process starts with a big review that happens every four years.
Reeser said street planning decisions rely heavily on a major condition assessment of the city’s roughly 3,000 miles of roadway that helps the street division determine where repairs or more basic maintenance is needed. The latest one is expected to kick off this year.
During the assessment, a contractor scores city streets and rates them poor, fair or good. A rating between 70 and 100 is considered good while a score between 40 and 69 is considered fair. Streets with scores below 40 are rated in poor condition and considered eligible for major repairs.
The city aims to maintain an average citywide rating of at least 70.
Two years ago, Mayor Kevin Faulconer cheered the news that the city’s latest street condition index found that the overall condition of city streets had risen from a fair rating of 59 in 2011 to a 72 in 2016. And last fall, he celebrated reaching a goal to repair 1,000 miles of streets nearly two years ahead of his 2020 target.
As it’s determining which repairs to prioritize, the city also considers requests it’s received from residents, the volume of traffic on particular streets, public safety issues, the funding it has available to invest and other projects in the same area.
More heavily trafficked roads and those close to others on the city’s fix-it list are likely to be repaired more quickly – and to receive more routine maintenance.
In both cases, Reeser said the city sees an opportunity to save cash by grouping nearby projects together and pursuing lower-cost maintenance work over more invasive construction.
On Faulconer’s watch, many city streets considered in fair or even good condition have been topped with what’s known as slurry seal.
Slurry seal is a mix of sand and petroleum product that city workers use to coat a street. This mixture is used to preserve asphalt that’s not yet in crumbling condition.
“It’s something we want to apply to the streets on a much more frequent basis to keep the streets in a good condition,” Reeser said.
This can explain why some roads that don’t seem most in need of fixes end up getting fixed up anyway.
The past three years, the city has budgeted about $20 million to $30 million annually for slurry seal repairs and reports it’s applied slurry seal to more than 500 miles of roadway during that period.
Most roads in need of more drastic fixes get covered with overlay – a new layer of asphalt that’s a couple inches thick. The city often removes a couple inches of existing asphalt before topping the road with a clean layer of pavement. The city also occasionally uses concrete to replace crumbling panels or to completely reconstruct a road when it must.
The city has collectively budgeted $122 million for these more invasive fixes the last three years and through December, had used that cash to perform nearly 200 miles of repairs.
Faulconer has pushed for these increased investments in street repairs and other reforms following years of inadequate city investments.
But there still can be hiccups and delays.
Things can get complicated when the city must coordinate with another agency before it proceeds with fixes.
And if there’s a major project coming up in an area, the city aims to wait until that’s finished before doing repair and maintenance work. That can mean some crumbling streets don’t get fixed for years.
Take Clairemont Mesa Boulevard.
Mitch, who submitted this question to VOSD, asked why a stretch of the road in the Tierrasanta area hasn’t been fixed for years when a nearby street that’s less traveled has been repeatedly resurfaced. (He asked that we not share his last name.)
“It is sorely in need of work but hasn’t been done for many, many years,” Mitch wrote in an email to VOSD.
City spokesman Anthony Santacroce said the portion of the boulevard close to Interstate 15 that Mitch referenced will require permits from Caltrans that the city still needs to get.
There’s a more major holdup down the street.
Santacroce said a massive three-year sewer and pipe replacement project set to begin in August 2020 has led the city to hold off on major repairs on the stretch of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard between Interstates 805 and 15, a roughly three-mile stretch.
So while parts of the road are bumpy, and potholes and uneven pavement abound in some areas, the city won’t be working on this street for some time.
“We can’t go in there and just pave it over because we’re looking long-range,” Santacroce said.
The street division has also historically struggled to time other projects.
A 2016 city auditor’s report concluded the city sometimes failed to effectively coordinate with utilities or other city departments, which can lead to a street being dug up multiple times.
That was despite a street preservation ordinance that went into effect in 2013 and required more coordination with utilities, set guidelines for resurfacing streets and established three and five-year moratoriums on excavations depending on the type of repair project.
Reeser said the city has a system to track projects to try to avoid conflicts and ensure other city departments and utilities can communicate about projects.
But unplanned issues can also complicate matters.
I had personal experience with that last week. An emergency during last week’s rainstorms forced city workers to dig into a street I drive on daily. It had been re-topped with slurry seal less than two years ago.
Yet city workers were forced to tear up the street despite the preservation ordinance that puts a three-year moratorium after a slurry project.