Where are San Diego’s worst potholes? A laser-equipped van is roaming 2,800 miles of city streets to find out

A San Diego city worker repairs a pothole in January.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

From pothole depth to overall smoothness, the first survey since 2016 aims to assess the quality of every street so the city can better repair them, officials say.


San Diego has launched a comprehensive evaluation of the pavement on every city street so it can more strategically make repairs and compare the overall quality of its streets with a previous survey in 2016.

From how deep the potholes are to overall smoothness, the survey will rate individual streets as good, fair or poor and help city officials decide between minor repairs like slurry seal and major repairs like resurfacing.

A van equipped with lasers and other tools that measure pavement smoothness began roaming San Diego’s 2,800 miles of streets in early March. It is scheduled to continue, neighborhood by neighborhood, through late summer.

The data, called an overall condition index, also will help the city gear road repairs toward fixing San Diego’s most neglected roads and boosting opportunities for bicycling.

A new infrastructure prioritization policy approved last year by the City Council focuses on helping previously underserved neighborhoods, many located south of Interstate 8.

Previously, the city’s formula for deciding which crumbling streets got repaired focused primarily on how badly a street was in disrepair, as well as traffic volume and proximity to tourist attractions.

The new formula adds in neighborhood equity, climate resiliency, mobility and proximity to city parks and libraries.

The City Council unanimously approved a complex scoring system and commitment to gather more feedback on projects from underserved areas

City policy calls for performing pavement surveys every four or five years, but San Diego’s most recent survey was in 2016.

That survey determined that the average condition of city streets was above the “good” threshold, defined as a rating of 70 or better. The average condition climbed from 58.9 in 2011 to 71.5 in 2016.

It also concluded that San Diego compared favorably with other major cities in California, with Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland all well below 70.

Though the rating system was created by the Army Corps of Engineers and is intended as an objective measure, officials say methodology for street condition assessments can vary from city to city.

On the negative side, the 2016 survey said that only 60 percent of individual streets were in good condition, 34 percent were deemed “fair” (rated between 40 and 69) and 6 percent were “poor” (rated below 40).

A follow-up survey was delayed a few years by budget constraints. It was scheduled to begin last spring after money was secured, but it was delayed an additional year by the search for a contractor, city officials said.

The company hired by the city is Fugro, a worldwide data collection company that has done similar surveys in many other cities.

“Their experience, knowledge and skills are right in line with what we’re looking for,” said Patrick Hadley, a management analyst in the city’s Transportation Department. “They’re using a lot of solid instrumentation and they’ve got a lot of experience with this. They do this nationwide.”

The city’s two previous comprehensive pavement surveys were handled by Cartegraph Systems.

The new survey will cost just under $500,000, less than the $560,000 spent in 2016 and much less than the $700,000 city officials budgeted for the new survey.

Hadley said one reason it will cost less is that Cartegraph did a “windshield” survey, in which analysts surveyed every road visually, while Fugro is doing a survey that relies only on instrumentation.

Fugro’s lasers measure distress on the roadway as vehicles drive over it, and they can measure potholes and smaller depressions, Hadley said. Fugro also has a special “rideability tool” that measures how smooth a road is, he said.

Bethany Bezak, director of the Transportation Department, said the new survey will be superior.

“This is more efficient, and we are getting more comprehensive and better data out of it,” she said. “It’s going to allow us to have this full and current assessment across the city, and then it’s going to allow us to prioritize the funding accordingly.”

The data will help the city make smart decisions, Bezak said. Minor upgrades to a street with slurry seal costs about $130,000 per mile, while a more fundamental asphalt overlay, which lasts longer and looks better, costs about $780,000 per mile.

Residents have been waving down the Fugro van, which has a logo saying “Street condition assessment” on its side, and asking questions of the people operating it, Hadley said.

“It’s hard to miss out there,” he said.

“It’s going to allow us to have this full and current assessment across the city, and then it’s going to allow us to prioritize the funding accordingly.”

— Bethany Bezak, director of San Diego Transportation Department

The survey won’t include about 60 miles of unpaved roads city officials recently added to San Diego’s street network.

“We are assessing the quality of the pavement, so if there is no pavement, we aren’t assessing,” Hadley said.

Protected bike lanes also won’t be surveyed, but bike paths painted on city roadways will be evaluated, he said.

Bezak said officials expect the new score to be below the target of 70, primarily because the survey is taking place after one of the rainiest winters in San Diego history.

City Councilwoman Marni von Wilpert said the rains have made the survey even more important.

“The rain is crushing our roads, so I’m glad we’re going to get this study done so we know the level of each street,” she said.

Councilman Kent Lee, chairman of the council’s Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, also expressed enthusiasm.

“We’re very much awaiting the results and glad to see it’s finally underway,” he said.


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