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A City in Disrepair

After years of neglect, San Diego now has millions of dollars 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 cash.


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Photo by Sam Hodgson

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 2-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—including roads, sidewalks, storm drains, and city buildings.

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 over-promised 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

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.

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.

So far, San Diego’s leaders have over-promised 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.

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 the city’s 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 six and a half 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.”

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