Last week, the city of San Diego released a big, ol’ report detailing the state of its (insert bad adjective here) infrastructure.

I’ll be unpacking this a lot going forward, especially now that city officials finally seem to be getting around to thinking about a way to pay for fixes. Let’s start with three charts that explain the issue in three very different ways.

A Storm Water Storm’s a-Brewin’

The storm water tsunami is coming.

This chart compares what the city says it needs to spend to improve its storm water system over the next five years versus what it actually plans to spend.

storm water chart

That giant gulf between the two charts is almost $700 million – more than the San Diego Padres are worth. These numbers come from the costs to improve the city’s system to meet strict new regional water-quality standards passed almost two years ago. If the city doesn’t meet these standards, it could ultimately face daily fines and other penalties.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The city’s first approach to this problem was denial — “The thinking was, it’s in the future and it’s such a ridiculous cost, it can’t be correct,” a budget analyst told me a while back. Then it was to freak out – the city has been telling investors storm water costs might wreak havoc on the city’s balance sheet. What the city hasn’t done is figured out a way to fix things.

The idea was to try to negotiate with water quality board officials to change some of the standards before major ones take effect in 2018. Whatever the status of those talks, the costs remain astronomical. The city could also try to increase its “extremely low” – in the words of the independent budget analyst – storm water fee. But doing so would require a public vote.

We’re Going to Fix the Water and Sewer Pipes But You’re Going to Pay for It

If you want to feel better, and worse, about the city’s infrastructure challenges, look at this chart that tracks the next five years of water and sewer infrastructure planning.

water and sewer chart

You’ll notice that the roughly $1.5 billion the city expects to spend improving its water and sewer system is fully funded. That’s the good news. The bad news: You’re the one fully funding it.

Water and sewer officials are soon going to be proposing rate increases to pay for these fixes, city public works officials told me. They also told me they expect these rate increases will be approved because they’ve always been in the past. Rate increases don’t require a public vote and they’ve gone through with barely any protest in recent years. Water rates have already gone up 7.5 percent in each of the last two years. Also looming is the recently approved $2.5 billion plan to recycle San Diego’s sewage into drinking water. No one has figured out how to pay for that, either.

OK, What About Streets?

The report’s section on street repairs reveals both the promise of the city’s evolving approach to infrastructure and its ongoing shortcomings. I’m not going to depress you with a chart showing the gap between street repair needs and funding over the next five years. (It’s almost $300 million.) Instead, here’s a picture of what the street conditions have been like recently and what they could be a decade from now.

streets chart

The city grades its streets on a scale of 0 to 100. Streets scored 70 or higher are considered in good condition, meaning they’re typically pothole-free.

The city’s streets department has set a goal of improving the city’s road network to an average of 70 by 2025. The street funding needs outlined in the report represents the money public works officials estimate they’ll need each year to meet that goal.

What’s great about this approach? The city has actually set a goal to improve street conditions and said how much it’ll cost to do it.

What’s not so great? There’s still a lot of missing information. The costs listed in the report are just the expenses for capital street repairs, not on-going road maintenance. Think of it as the difference between replacing your car’s engine and changing its oil. We have now have the engine replacement costs, but not the price tag for oil changes. This number will be less, but it will still add tens of millions of dollars to the city’s repair bill each year. Public works officials said they planned to publish this figure in the coming months.

If you put all of this together, you can see why Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s repair proposals so far aren’t much more than lip service. He makes a big deal out of saying he’ll dedicate half of all new tax revenues to infrastructure, but that’s a drop in the bucket compared with what’s needed to make things better. Similarly, his plan announced in this month’s State of the City to repave 1,000 miles of streets won’t move the needle in the big picture.

Ever since Faulconer took office a year ago, even his supporters have said his infrastructure funding ideas were inadequate. There are signs that he seems to finally be getting the message. City Councilman Mark Kersey, his Republican ally, announced plans to put a financing package before voters next year.

    This article relates to: Government, Infrastructure, News, Streets and Sidewalks

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at or 619.550.5663.

    Jeff Bridges
    Jeff Bridges

    It's unfortunate that so much tax money must be spent on sewer repair, but I think it is a necessary repair. There are a number of problems that could arise from damaged sewer lines. It's important to get it fixed as soon as possible, especially in a city with so many people. 

    Robbie Hardy
    Robbie Hardy

    Liam, I think that the sewer system is very important for a city and they should be willing to maintain it. I feel like if they go lax and don't do anything, or not enough, they are going to pay for it in years to come. I hope they reevaluate things and work out a plan to get things going in the right direction. 

    Kevin Swanson
    Kevin Swanson subscriber

    "Trust me" state the Politicians and Bureaucrats with the City of San Diego. Past Trust has resulted in unfunded infrastructure investment starting at a minimum of $1.7 Billion and reality of at least $3B.

    The "richer" north City developments where people vote consistently are not experiencing the visible breakdown of the older core, and will most likely not support a tax that benefits the "poorer" older infrastructure.

    I Would not be surprised by movement to establish new Cities by various communities as they break away from taxation which doesn't benefit them.

    Joe Point
    Joe Point subscriber

    Is there a reason that newly resurfaced streets in SD are full of potholes in just a few years?  I'm from New England, and we had heaving frosts, and still our roads held up better than the roads in this mild climate.  Is it something to do with inferior materials and workmanship....and the prospect that contractors know they will get to do it all over again in less than 10 years???  Should be investigated.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    The City of San Diego has the worst public infrastructure in the nation due to ignoring the effects of liquefaction and active fault surface rupture and creep along transportation corridors and life line utilities. The solutions are easy. But no one in San Diego is enforcing the laws or following the State's Seismic Hazard Mapping Act (SMHA).

    In 2012, as part of the required regional fault investigations for the closing down of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS), active faulting was confirmed in Old Town as part of the active Rose Canyon Fault Zone (RCFZ).

    However the Draft Community Plan for the Old Town/Midway corridor still fails to include this game changing information, and states there are only "potentially active" faults, and no evidence of active faulting with the Community Plan boundaries.

    The solution is to get Judge Ronald Prager to take back his misguided January 22, 2009  legal ruling on the Navy Broadway Complex (NBC) project where he decided that the City of San Diego is not subject to the State's Seismic Hazard Mapping Act (SHMA), based upon a created legal loophole.  Under the SHMA, regional faulting has to be confirmed or denied as part any construction project in general, and hopefully as part of the new Port Master Plan.

    The majority of lawsuits against the City of San Diego for broken utilities are in locations where the City says only "potentially active" faulting exists, therefore no mitigation is required.  If active faulting is confirmed along Harbor Drive and Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) then the broken utilities could be considered Force Majeure events, similar to the 2007  Soledad Mountain Road landslide.  Relieving taxpayers from the known risks of created legal loopholes that costs more in the long run in lawsuits and broken utilities. 

    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    Any connection between this and decades of structural budget deficits? Asking for the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

    lorisaldana subscriber

    The long forgotten Kroll report outlined how San Diego city staff intentionally misled regulators and misused funds for water and wastewater infrastructure. As a result low income ratepayers were never given the reductions the federal funding required.

    The city was required to come into compliance with these regulations. The mayors office took responsibility for developing the compliance plan according to city documents I've reviewed.

    However requests to the mayors office have resulted in no answers to questions about what's been done to make sure these future funds are used legally to avoid the same problem and ensure ratepayers are charged as federal law requires.

    I've noticed the Kroll report has been removed from the city's website.

    Unless and until the city learns from its mistake and uses every available state and federal dollar to help with these massive infrastructure bills, city ratepayers will pay disproportionately for water and wastewater even while conserving.

    As for the storm drain system, the city should be looking at ways to divert flows into underground tanks to be used for landscaping and other non-potable purposes. The hardscaping of urban development means more run off, more rapidly and less water soaking into the ground, recharging what little groundwater we have.

    Another step would be to require future homes to have rainwater catchment systems built in to use for their landscaping needs. This is now done in areas of Australia that have had persistent drought. Homeowners have tertiary water systems: rainwater, gray water, and municipal water.

    Rather then struggle with funding a massive, centralized "Bluewater" program this distributed rainwater collection system would be more cost-efficient and easier to maintain and be used by homeowners.

    But the people who dig trenches and build complex systems love the technology. And the attorneys and environmental groups who cooperated with devising the plan are flattered to be part of an expensive system design, yet to date have no answers re: how how to pay for it.

    If recent city history is any indicator, money will be shifted away, surreptitiously, and we won't find out about it till the next administration enters City Hall.

    Brian Peterson
    Brian Peterson subscriber

    @lorisaldana Thanks for remembering the Kroll report.  As I recall, this episode also generated the most famous city council quote from the whole debacle:  "Let 'em sue us!"  

    lorisaldana subscriber

    Which means: ratepayers pay twice, with fewer good outcomes, and-

    Attorneys get paid, and paid, and paid- many times- with $$ intended for potable drinking water and/or sewage treatment, not legal services. (note to Liam- have you requested a copy of the city's legal bills related to water/sewage issues?)

    The city of San Diego has a history of hiring outside counsel for defending the city's financial abuses AND their related sewage spills AND to negotiate the possible solutions at the end. They really should just put them on the payroll- but private fees are more lucrative.

    So the city has devised- thru neglect or intent, I'm not certain- a system that favors legal/negotiated responses/solutions to what should/could be simple, technology based, infrastructure management. And we citizens who are not attorneys wind up with higher water/sewer bills, despite using/disposing less water thru our homes.

    It's a great confidence game.

    I have confidence the city:attorney water/sewage cabal will continue. And I wonder how long it will take to hear from some of the cabal members to respond to my post- or perhaps they will just ignore this, and hope I stop bringing Kroll et al to people's attention.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    Mancy decades ago San Diego put money aside for projects such as these. These put asides were called reserve accounts. When the time came the funds were used to pay off the large construction projects. About 20 or 30 years ago, and continuing today, the funds that went into reserve accounts was given to employees as wage and benefit increases. Currently most construction is paid for with debt. This is very constly and time consuming and not the best way to go. We also voted to pay constructions workers "prevaling wages" which guarantees them top tier wages and lessens the amount of construction. We need to revert to the old system and save for all the repairs we need. Start off by freezing all but police salaries and benefits for 5 years. Use these funds and the future funds for construction. Don't put the city furthur in debt.

    Cory Briggs
    Cory Briggs subscribermember

    Fun "fact," Liam (or so it is in my small mind): The city's latest estimate does not fully account for costs of old, decayed underground infrastructure that collapses when the streets to be replaced come out. As I understand it, the process of removing a street and prepping the soil beneath creates a change in the soil pressure surrounding the underground pipes. Pipes in bad shape will collapse or at least become compromised enough that they will have to be repaired or replaced in relatively short order. That means a new road will have to be cut into or removed in order to fix the broken pipes beneath. The costs of fixing bad roads AND the crumbling sub-infrastructure at the same time or in short succession is missing from the report (at least to my non-enngineer eyes).

    Potential analog: When the port realigned Harbor Drive near Broadway, the aging pipes beneath were compromised and had to be replaced. I have heard that the costs went up by roughly 50 percent.

    Heard anything along these lines, Liam?

    Liam Dillon
    Liam Dillon memberadministrator

    @Cory Briggs I haven't fully dug into claims, which we hear often, of the city/contractors tearing up roads they just repaved. A series of ordinances a few years ago was supposed to take care of that, but I don't know if that's happened. Also, I know the city is planning to spend a ton of money to integrate the information it has on all its assets together. The hope is that they'll be able to look at a section of road and understand the condition of the street, sidewalk, water/sewer pipes, storm drains, etc. at one time. This also, of course, would allow them to plan better for when to make repairs.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Yet again the opportunity costs associated with the pension scheme and the hundreds of millions a year extra that will be paid till 2025 or beyond. Infrastructure ignored for years and the back door approach to extracting more monies from the public.

    Rick Smith
    Rick Smith subscriber

    @Mark Giffin Not necessarily true.  The City was forgoing infrastructure long before the pension schemes. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Rick Smith @Mark Giffin 

    " The City was forgoing infrastructure long before the pension schemes."

    Yep. no argument there. The pension scheme added to the mess but hey, we got a ball park.

    The opportunity cost of shoring up the pension system is where the money is going instead of going to the "needs" of the city. The needs keep growing and so does the price tag. 

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    @Jeffrey Davis @Mark Giffin @Rick Smith 

    Appreciate the reply Jeffrey though I disagree with the "deferred pay" shorting.

    Bottom line is the opportunity costs (hundreds of millions yearly) will not be available to take care of city needs and will continue thru 2025 at least

    Now we will be forced to borrow much more than needed to meet these needs that should have never allowed to fester this long. All so the city could be in the business of increasing  compensation and benefits government workers.

    This scenario is playing out all over America  Governments playing shell games just to make ends meet instead of being fiscally responsible

    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    @Mark Giffin @Rick Smith If by "increasing compensation and benefits" you mean for City of San Diego since 1996, then you're 35%-41% right. That's still a lot! (Underfunding predates that though.)

    Erik Bruvold
    Erik Bruvold subscribermember

    Liam - I know we get quickly into dueling levels of woe - with the city claiming it will be horrifically expensive and the RWQB saying it is trivially easy but could you guys do a report/explainer on the costs of the permit?  I consider myself reasonably well informed and I never could figure out what could possibly cost $700 million unless you did really unrealistic stuff - like completely restore Chollas creek which would be politically near impossible and a multi-decade long process.  

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Erik Bruvold I've spent my career in the construction business and I can say that $700 million for a city as big as ours is quite realistic.  Underground construction is very expensive in an urban environment.  One of the issues is capturing the first 1/2" of storm water and sending it to the sewage plant, that system is expensive. We have a bunch of pump stations that need overhaul.  We have an inventory of old pipe that needs replacement.  

    Restoration of Chollas Creek would be an entirely different budget. 

    billharris subscriber

    @Erik Bruvold It is all very real and realistic given the requirements. The Comprehensive Load Reduction Plans (posted online since October 2012) and the Watershed Asset Management Plan (also on the webpage) are good first reads. The County concurs. LA concurs. The California Stormwater Quality Association concurs. This is a statewide issue that San Diego identified and carefully reported early. Please let me know if you need any additional information or details.

    Bill Harris

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    San Diego conservatarians can carp about what they consider "waste, fraud, and abuse" as their clan members nationally have done for more than a decade, but we are going to improve (or even maintain) the quality of our civic life only to the extent we are willing to pay for it. Argue or pay--that is our choice. Each year we choose to argue that quality deteriorates more, and the cost to reinstate it gets higher.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    "The bad news: You’re the one fully funding it."

    This is news?