San Diego is known for its sunshine, multicultural communities and, to locals, its seemingly never-ending infrastructure needs. And later this year, at the urging of Mayor Todd Gloria, the city will decide how to spend $40 million to improve infrastructure in neighborhoods Gloria says have been historically neglected.
By the end of this month, city officials expect to have a list of projects to fund with the $40 million. The projects getting priority will be in communities that have historically had low access to opportunity, according to a 2019 city study that evaluates San Diego communities on a number of factors, including health and mobility, to determine the potential impact of climate change on them.
City council members -- for the first time ever -- were invited to submit lists of road repairs they say are needed within their districts, said David Rolland, Gloria's senior adviser.
But is $40 million really enough to meet the need?
Not nearly, said Eddie Sprecco, chief executive officer of the San Diego chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America. “A lot of the roads are in such disrepair they need to be ground down and resurfaced,” he said, noting the backlog of roads that need repair.
The city's most recent assessment of road conditions found more than 2,393 segments of roadway were in poor condition. Those segments are shorter lengths of a longer road, such as a city block. Of the city’s more than 32,000 road segments, 42% were in fair or poor condition.
Residents throughout San Diego also doubt the money will go far enough.
Manny Medina, a Logan Heights resident, questioned the efficacy of Gloria’s “Sexy Streets” initiative. He says it could be a good thing for the community “if they actually do something.”
“It’s weird to me,” he said about the city allocating $40 million dollars specifically to under-resourced communities. “Why aren’t these communities a part of the city's original plan for infrastructure? Why does it have to be a separate thing, like ‘if we have extra money then we will give it to you guys?’ ”
Rolland said the city funds road improvements through several pots of money, including from the gas tax and other state and local sources of infrastructure money. But the $40 million provided through the "Sexy Streets'' program will offer additional money for repaving streets and other infrastructure improvements, targeting spending in underserved communities.
San Diego officials have said that change in the way infrastructure dollars are spent is a major priority for them.
Previous decisions about how to spend infrastructure money were driven by the conditions of roads and “practical coordination with city-wide Capital Improvement Projects,” Rolland said.
Complicating the question of which roads the city should prioritize for upgrades is the fact that the city’s most recent data on road conditions is from the 2015-16 fiscal year. Every four years, the city is supposed to assess the condition of the roads and produce a report but the city did not fund one in 2019 or 2020.
This year, city leaders have agreed to spend $700,000 to survey every road within the city of San Diego, categorizing each as poor, fair or good quality, providing a numerical score as well. The scores should be updated at the end of next year, city officials said.
The city plans to distribute the $40 million to “communities of concern” identified in San Diego’s 2019 Climate Equity Index Report. The survey ranked the city's 297 census tracts on various health, environmental, housing, mobility and socioeconomic indicators.
The condition of roads in a community was just one of 42 indicators considered in the equity index. Others include flood risk, proximity to solid waste sites and facilities, traffic density, access to healthy food, and disability, asthma and unemployment rates.
Communities such as Logan Heights, Southeastern San Diego and San Ysidro, where most residents are people of color and the neighborhoods have been underfunded, will get priority in the city’s spending plan, officials say. Logan Heights, in particular, had a cluster of roads in poor condition in the city’s last streets assessment.
The city’s climate study found a correlation between race and low access to opportunity. For example, people of color make up 96% of residents in the 13 census tracts with the lowest, or “very low” access to opportunity, 81% of residents in 48 census tracts with low access to opportunity, and 63% in tracts with moderate access.
All but one district -- District 1, represented by Joe LaCava -- was identified as having communities of concern. District 1 includes the areas of Torrey Pines, Carmel Valley, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Del Mar Mesa, Torrey Hills, University City and La Jolla.
LaCava declined to comment when asked if he thought it is fair to prioritize the city’s communities of concern over District 1.
But residents in LaCava’s district told inewsource they have long-needed road repairs, too.
The city says the money is not solely for road repairs — streetlights, curbs and other infrastructure needs could be covered, too. If city officials see that a community has multiple needs, the city may bundle a project, which means a road, curb and street light can be fixed in one effort.
How far will $40 million go?
San Diego’s nine council members requested repairs on more than 350 street segments, Rolland said. The requested road repairs range from a few hundred feet to 3 miles. Other requests include replacing and adding street lights.
Representatives from seven districts requested 12 or fewer roads to be repaired while District 1’s LaCava made 36 suggestions and District 8’s Councilmember Vivian Moreno made 44.
The requests amount to more than 40 miles of road repairs, according to an inewsource analysis of the requests. Moreno also asked for 31 streetlight repairs.
The types of repairs the city decides to offer will determine how far that $40 million will stretch.
The average cost of a slurry seal, which fills cracks and potholes, is $130,000 per mile, according to Anthony Santacroce, the city’s spokesperson. Overlaying, which means repaving, runs the city $780,000 per mile, and repairing concrete streets, which are more expensive than asphalt streets, costs $1.5 million a mile. Complete reconstruction of a road costs an average of $6 million a mile, Santacroce said.
But city officials already know the needs across the city will cost $40 million many times over.
Earlier this year, the city estimated it needs $5.7 billion to spend on infrastructure needs over the next five years. The city has about $3.4 billion to spend, which leaves a $2.3 billion gap.
Logan Heights residents weigh in
Some residents in Logan Heights, which is in District 8, said they have long complained about the various infrastructure needs in the community, from road repairs to more parking and adding more curbs.
Logan Avenue is one high traffic road whose business owners say the city has not done enough to keep up the infrastructure. The street is filled with bright colored murals, coffee shops and bustling businesses.
Medina, a longtime employee of Por Vida coffee shop, said wealthier neighborhoods seem better off than Logan Heights with more parking and cleaner streets. He says he rarely sees the city cleaning the streets. “We have to do that ourselves,” he said.
“It sucks to see that disparity,” Medina said. “But it's great to see business owners take things into their own hands to try to make things better.”
Businesses on Logan Avenue rely on the little street parking to attract customers, but a lack of spots has left customers parking in the median. The closest city parking lot is for the trolley and located more than a half-mile from Medina’s workplace.
“It’s not safe that there’s cars in the middle,” Medina said, noting the challenge for emergency vehicles when they come through. But, he added, parking in the median is necessary because there’s not enough places to park.
Medina also said that residents and business owners end up with citations after struggling to find parking.
Norma Ramos, a Logan Heights resident for more than 30 years, said she has called the city multiple times for the uneven roads, cracked sidewalks and potholes. She said in November of last year, she stepped in a pothole leading up to her driveway. “I almost broke my toe,” she said.
“I called the city. In less than an hour they were here and they fixed it,” said Ramos, adding that most of the Hispanic residents on her block only speak Spanish and may not know they can call the city about the roads.
Ramos said she has noticed roads in other neighborhoods that have nice streets and plenty of parking, but “not here, not on Irving Street.”
Sampson Street, which crosses Irving, is another high traffic area in need of road repairs. It’s lined with a crack down the middle of the divided yellow lines, potholes and uneven pavement.
Victoria Salcedo has lived in Logan Heights near Sampson Street for more than 20 years and says her niece has called the city to complain about several infrastructure issues.
“The pavement is really messed up,” she said.
Several intersections along Sampson Street are nearby schools, businesses and construction sites and, Salcedo says, many drivers do not stop at the intersections outside of her house. She suggests the city put radar speed signs to encourage slower driving.
Salcedo said infrastructure is nicer in areas where wealthy people live.
“We all pay taxes, and I don’t know why they get nicer roads,” she said. “It’s sad, (the city) doesn’t treat us equally.”
District 8 Councilmember Moreno did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
La Jolla residents say needs are widespread
Diane Kane, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, said “there are many neighborhoods that are distressed,” not just the ones the city has identified as a community of concern.
“We are in a world of hurt for 50 years of underfunding infrastructure throughout California,” she said. “The whole state is crumbling.”
Since District 1 has no communities of concern, it is unclear how much of the $40 million the residents will see invested in their neighborhoods.
But Kane said she understands why the city is prioritizing long-neglected communities — many wealthier La Jolla residents have the resources to pay for many of the things the city is not paying for, she says.
“I think it’s fair to communities that have had decades of disinvestment, and it’s showing up in all sorts of indicators. La Jolla is fortunate in that we have private resources,” Kane said.
Members of the La Jolla Community Planning Association have generated a list of infrastructure priorities that Kane says is community wide. Part of the suggested infrastructure needs include adding handrails and fixing steps at beach access points, rehabilitating the Children’s Pool seawall, a popular beach for tourists to observe seals during pupping season, repairing sidewalks and fixing water drainage issues.
Kane is also pushing for a better stormwater system that will prevent untreated rainwater from going into the ocean. She said the current stormwater system has contributed to flooding and erosion problems for La Jolla residents.
The responsibility of infrastructure in San Diego does not fall on one politician, elected official or community, Kane said, adding that residents have been unwilling to “tax ourselves … to open our wallets and contribute.”
“In general, citizens need to wake up and feel upset about things falling apart,” she said. “It’s everybody’s fault. Everybody benefits and everybody loses — we’re all in this together.”