S.D. road repair efforts are plagued by funding gaps, poor planning and weak transparency, grand jury says

City of San Diego workers repair a pothole in January.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The funding problem — which is expected to worsen — means the city needs to explore alternatives such as a mileage tax, according to the group’s report.


Road repair efforts in San Diego suffer from planning problems, worsening funding shortfalls and a cumbersome website that makes it hard for residents to find out when their streets will be paved, a new county grand jury report says.

The 24-page report recommends that the City Council approve a new law that would commit San Diego to a minimum amount of annual funding for road repairs until the overall condition of the city’s 2,800 miles of streets is declared good.

The report also recommends that the city Transportation Department create a comprehensive rolling five-year repair plan that would include a projected maintenance schedule for every city street.

The grand jury also wants the city’s website for street repairs to be more user-friendly instead of forcing residents to wade through multiple web pages.

Even with those changes, however, the city will face the daunting challenge of costs for road repairs rising much faster than funding for them.

The funding problem, which is expected to worsen when policies that aim to fight climate change start shrinking state gas tax revenue, means the city needs to explore alternative funding for road repairs, such as a mileage tax, according to the report.

“The real challenge for the city of San Diego moving forward will be identifying other funding sources to augment the limited funding currently available,” the report states. “Before too long the city will no longer be remotely able to keep pace with the streets that require repair.”

A mileage tax was part of last year’s sweeping county transportation plan, but city officials successfully lobbied to have it removed.

Mayor Todd Gloria spearheads removal of regional per-mile driving tax over objections from environmental groups

Sept. 23, 2022

City officials declined to comment about the criticisms and recommendations because grand jury reports set strict timelines for responses. The mayor and City Council are required to provide a comprehensive response by Tuesday, Aug. 29.

The report, released June 8, comes with San Diego in the middle of its first comprehensive evaluation since 2016 of the pavement quality on every city street.

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.

April 2, 2023

From their overall smoothness to the depth of their potholes, the survey will rate individual roads as good, fair or poor and help city officials decide between minor repairs like slurry seal and major repairs like resurfacing.

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

But the grand jury said it “learned through interviews” with city officials that the city expects the new survey will reveal a drop in the overall quality of streets since 2016, which would raise the costs for repairs even higher.

When the condition of a street drops from “fair” to “poor,” it typically requires an asphalt overlay instead of less-expensive slurry seal. The large gap in cost between those types of repairs continues to widen, the report says.

The cost per mile for slurry seal has risen since 2020 from $100,000 to $180,000, while the cost for one mile of asphalt overlay has soared from $400,000 to $1.5 million during that time, according to the report.

Slurry seal consists of asphalt emulsion, sand and rock applied to the street surface at an average thickness of a quarter-inch. An overlay is a new layer of asphalt of one to three inches on top of the existing surface.

Road repair money trails rising costs

The grand jury report praised Mayor Todd Gloria for boosting funding for street repairs to $100 million in the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, calling the move “a step in the right direction.”

But the report says the city’s sources for road repair money are not keeping up with the climbing costs.

“Before too long the city will no longer be remotely able to keep pace with the streets that require repair.”

— Grand jury report

In January, city infrastructure officials estimated that San Diego faces $987 million in needed street repairs over the next five years. That was up sharply from the $430 million estimated in January 2021 and $223 million in January 2019.

Over the same period, revenue available for street repairs rose from about $200 million to just under $500 million, a much smaller increase by both actual dollars and percentage.

Possible reasons for the expanding gap include inflation and a growing scarcity of construction materials during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

The city’s main sources of money for road repairs are proceeds from bonds, the state gas tax, the state’s Road Maintenance and Rehabilitation Act of 2017, fees paid by private companies when they cut into streets and Transnet — the county’s half-cent sales tax surcharge for transportation projects.

The report suggests an additional source of revenue could be a mileage tax, which would require drivers to pay fees based on how many miles they drive.

Another solution proposed in the report would be for city workers to handle most or all road repairs instead of the current practice of having contractors handle most of them.

The report recommends that city officials consider doing a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether that would save money and potentially how much.

Regarding using the city’s website to find out when a street will be repaired, the report says the grand jury tested eight separate addresses and couldn’t easily get that information for any of them.

“The city’s interactive map did not help in our search,” the report states. “Our search required viewing several different pages on the city’s website, none of which provided the information we sought.”

The report says it was “even more frustrating” to discover that specific streets and some whole neighborhoods are missing from the database.


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