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After years of neglect, San Diego now has millions to repair
decaying streets and crumbling facilities. But the city has missed
deadline after deadline and hasn’t shown it knows how to spend the
Picador Boulevard’s decline has become part of Genevieve Vigil’s life.
Every weekday morning she drives the Otay Mesa road to drop off her 4-year-old son, Dominic, at daycare and then continues on Picador to go to work. Deep cracks, uneven asphalt and a two-foot-wide pothole jolt her along the way. About every two weeks, Vigil said, the patched potholes in front of the Border View YMCA erode and leave bumps instead. Vigil is taking her car to the mechanic. Her wheel alignment is screwed up.
“It’s depressing,” Vigil said, standing along the boulevard on a recent afternoon.
As she talks, cars swish by. Picador is a busy thoroughfare. Houses give way to a middle school, then a strip mall and gas station before the road leads into State Route 905. Vigil has complained about the street to the city. She throws up her hands a lot when she talks about Picador.
“I just want it to get fixed,” she said.
Local roads are deteriorating faster than they can be fixed. So are San Diego’s sidewalks, storm drains and city buildings. Slowly, they’ve all been falling apart. A national transportation group ranked the region’s roads the eighth worst in the country.
Mayor Jerry Sanders and other city leaders know it’s a problem. That’s why they borrowed $100 million in March 2009 to begin repaving, repairing and replacing the worst of the worst.
But more than two years later, the city has spent just $45.3 million. By mid-August, one-third of the loan still hadn’t been committed to construction projects. Some repairs remain more than a year away.
The almost mile-long stretch of Picador that Vigil drives was supposed to be smooth by now. City officials promised to repave it and 100 more miles of broken roads by this summer. Now, the city says, they’ll all be finished by next summer.
City officials say they were unprepared to spend the money and a disorganized and inefficient bureaucracy made initial delays worse. They say they’ve solved their bureaucratic difficulties and are ready to take on even more work. They have plans to borrow $500 million more for lagging repairs.
“We know it’s a serious problem,” said Tony Heinrichs, head of the city’s public works department. “We’re committed to fixing the problem.”
After decades of decay, there’s money to spend and the promise of much more to come.
But the lumbering pace of repairs reveals a problem rarely discussed while the potholes and cracks grew. It takes more than money to fix San Diego. The city still has to figure out how to spend it.
So far, San Diego’s leaders have overpromised and under-delivered. If they can’t get it right, the parts of the city that residents touch and feel every day will continue to crumble faster than they can be fixed.
Road to Ruin
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|At the police department’s City Heights station, a leaky roof has caused water damage throughout the building. The roof hasn’t been replaced, even though the city has the money to do it.|
Before the rain comes, San Diego police officer Luis Roman takes out a makeshift plastic tarp.
Water soon will stream from the station’s roof at the Police Department’s City Heights station, and Roman needs the tarp to funnel rain into a 36-gallon trashcan. If not, it’ll drip onto the carpet in the division captain’s office.
“This place leaks like a sieve,” Roman said.
|Click on the graphic to enlarge.|
While Roman waits for the city to spend loan money on the roof, his do-it-yourself gutter can only do so much. Roman has had to staple and glue wallpaper back to the wall in the captain’s office because of water damage. The baseboards are peeling. During some storms, Roman has to empty the trashcan and put it back to collect more.
It’s taken a long time for the roof at the City Heights station to get so bad. It’s just one of the leaks, breaks and cracks that have contributed to the city’s decay.
The problems became so pervasive that for years no one took the time to count them. Or figure out how much they’d cost to fix.
Last March, city officials revealed a big part of the dreaded figure. It would cost a whopping $840 million to repair the neglected streets, storm drains and city buildings. That’s more than it costs to fund a year of city police, fire, library and parks and recreation services.
Worse news came a few months later. An audit said that big sum wasn’t close to the full answer. At least a quarter of city departments didn’t even know the condition of their facilities, let alone the cost to maintain them, the audit said. The report only added to the city’s fix-it list. Parks alone could need more than $2 billion in repairs, it estimated.
Auditors concluded that no one knew just how badly city facilities were crumbling.
San Diegans experience this problem every day. And they don’t want to. In a city survey last year, residents said no service needed more improvement than streets.
How did San Diego’s infrastructure get so bad?
Past city leaders say it became too easy to ignore as elected officials looked to cut taxes and expand services.
“The invisible cut that usually happens when things get really bad is maintenance,” former City Manager Jack McGrory said. “Nobody sees it.”
The neglect of the city’s roads, buildings and storm drains shows that the short-term thinking behind San Diego’s infamous pension deals weren’t isolated incidents, but symbolic of a larger citywide ill. City road repairs nearly stopped in 2004, the same time its political and financial crises started to peak.
That year the city didn’t do any major road resurfacing and made only a handful of minor repairs, down from 125 miles of resurfacing and minor repairs two years prior.
By 2007, the city’s roads were suffering. Almost two-thirds were rated unacceptable.
The problem has festered during Sanders’ tenure. In his first few years, Sanders spent 6 1/2 times more annually on street repairs than his predecessor, Dick Murphy, did at the end of his term. But the fixes didn’t keep pace with decay. Roads got worse.
Sanders also had to find a way to fund the backlog of road repairs from a strained budget. He concluded the city could not set aside enough money each year to maintain its road network and make up for past neglect. Instead, the mayor decided to borrow the money.
Sanders’ choice to take out a $100 million loan gave the city an immediate cash influx. But borrowing isn’t free. The city has to pay its debts back with interest. For this $100 million, the city will wind up paying twice that amount over time.
Sanders expects to finish repaving more than 100 miles of roads funded by the loan — some of the city’s worst — before he leaves office next year.
But he still will fall far short of the goals he set.
Sanders wanted 75 percent of San Diego’s roads in good condition, typically pothole-free, before he turned the city over to his successor. That won’t happen.
Now, city officials have set a much lower bar. They want to keep just 45 percent of San Diego’s roads in good condition. Officials say it will take $500 million in loans to improve roads and keep them in good shape, while maintaining storm drains and buildings at a similar level.
After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Once the loans dry up, the city will again have to find cash to repave the roads and maintain everything else.
“You’re never done with this,” Heinrichs said. “You always have to manage it. It goes into perpetuity.”
Money You Can’t Spend
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|An elevator at the the San Diego Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park overheats and stops working about once a month. The city has had money to repair the elevator and hasn’t started the project.|
Twenty-one times in the past two years, firefighters have had to rescue people trapped in elevators in six Balboa Park museums, theaters and historical buildings.
City officials have known about the problem. When they put together a plan to spend the $100 million loan two and a half years ago, they picked only the highest priority projects. Like those elevators.
The 28-year-old elevator that serves the San Diego Model Railroad Museum can’t handle its regular strain. Once a month, the museum offers free admission and parents, children and strollers pile into the elevator. On that day, the elevator often overheats and shuts down for a couple hours, said John Hogan, the building’s operations manager.
Hogan called the elevator repair company so much he gave it its own key.
But the elevator’s permanent repair has languished. So have many others. The city had completed less than 40 percent of the 91 projects on its original list through mid-August.
Current and past city officials cast the blame far and wide.
It’s the bureaucracy. Awarding repair contracts has taken six to eight months. City Council approval sometimes has taken another three months. And all the design and engineering work took time, too.
It’s the decisions at the top. Five years ago, Sanders switched the departments that handled repair contracts so he could speed up the process. He touted the change as a successful way to cut red tape. But the new process took three months longer. This July, Sanders undid his switch. He touted that change as a successful way to cut red tape, too.
It’s the past. The city didn’t have many shovel-ready projects because it had never spent the money to get them ready. Officials also hadn’t assessed the condition of many facilities. Others they hadn’t examined for years.
“It’s not like a racecar where you can start it and accelerate it up to 100 miles an hour right away,” said Dave Jarrell, who spent four years leading public works in the Sanders administration before moving to Annapolis, Md. last December. “It takes time to sort of start the process and get the projects in the queue.”
In the meantime, the money waited. The city didn’t kick off major road repairs for an entire year. The first year’s spending total? Just more than $1 million.
Jarrell said he held meetings on the repairs every other week. He went over every project on the list and tried to understand what was taking so long.
“It’s frustrating when you have the money and you know that there’s this great need and it’s just difficult to actually make it happen,” he said.
But city leaders have also promised more than they’ve delivered over the past two and a half years.
In August 2009, Jarrell said the city would have $70 million to $80 million worth of construction contracts on the street within six months. Twenty-four months later, the city still hadn’t reached that mark.
In March 2010, a streets department official said the city would complete all the road repairs by this summer. When this summer arrived, a Sanders press release trumpeted instead that the repairs were halfway done. The mayor made no mention of the original deadline. Repairs now are expected to be finished by next summer.
Officials say they’ve learned lessons from the delays. They’ve streamlined how they hire contractors. They know which facilities need the most repairs. They now have many shovel-ready projects.
“Up until the last couple of years, we didn’t have a really good handle on what our deferred capital needs were,” Heinrichs said. “We now have a really good idea.”
City Auditor Eduardo Luna isn’t convinced that these fixes untangle all the bureaucratic webs slowing down spending. He depicted the city’s repair process as labyrinthine. Too many departments involve themselves in approving and managing projects, too much of the city’s information is unreliable and too few people are accountable for making it all work, the auditor said.
“The bottom line now that we have the money, do we have an efficient way to spend it?” Luna said. “From my perspective, the answer is no.”
Luna proposes creating a group to be in charge and accountable, reducing costs over the long run. Sanders disagrees. He believes adding another city department would be too expensive and layer more bureaucracy on a process it’s trying to simplify.
Luna has another theory for the mayor’s resistance. The initial cost of a new department would make it harder for Sanders to keep his promise to balance the budget by the time he leaves office.
“Anything that’s going to detract from that they may not embrace,” Luna said. “Sooner or later someone’s going to have to address this issue.”
‘People Don’t Have Time to Wait’
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio patches a pothole in Rancho Bernardo after announcing his plan to fix city streets.|
Within an hour of each other on a sunny September afternoon, two candidates to be San Diego’s next mayor touted just how much they cared about fixing the city’s roads.
City Councilman Carl DeMaio unveiled a seven-point plan to fully fund street repairs. He then grabbed a shovel and helped fill a pothole in Rancho Bernardo himself.
“You can hear it sizzling,” DeMaio said, as the new asphalt stuck to the street.
Twenty miles away, state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher set up a podium along a cracked stretch of Pacific Highway and revealed his own nine-point plan.
“People don’t have time to wait,” Fletcher said.
But by the time DeMaio, Fletcher or anyone else takes office, an unprecedented repair campaign already could be underway. Sanders wants to pour $500 million into roads, buildings and storm drains over the next five years.
The spending spree, city officials say, will make infrastructure neglect a relic of the past.
This half-billion-dollar bounty is an investment the city hasn’t made in at least three decades. But it will only pay off if Sanders and his successor can figure out how to spend it.
|Photo by Sam Hodgson|
|The cracks in Picador Boulevard are deep. While residents have complained to the city, repaving still hasn’t begun.|
This story will also run in the November edition of San Diego Magazine.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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