San Diego has greatest urban infrastructure deficit in California

Sewers aren't sexy

— The Minneapolis bridge collapse and New York City steam pipe explosion have engendered introspection: Is the nation neglecting infrastructure? But the city with one of the most gaping infrastructure deficits, San Diego, has a slogan: "We'll cross that bridge when we get around to building it."

"San Diego has the greatest urban infrastructure deficit in California," says Steve Erie, professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. "We're a poster child for poor infrastructure, but we are permanently narcoleptic on the topic; we will never wake up. How many mayors have run away from solving the airport problem?"

And remember those promises to upgrade firefighting capability after the Cedar fire of 2003? Even if San Diego suffered a similar catastrophe now, our awareness would last only until Paris Hilton went to jail again.

In 2005, the San Diego Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a report card on the county's infrastructure. The grades: land and sea ports of entry, C; open space and parks, B minus; school facilities, C plus; storm water collection and treatment, C minus; surface transportation, C; wastewater systems, B minus; water supply, B. "Those were poor grades," says Katherine Hon of Hon Consulting, spokesperson for the local branch.

Next time around, "I would suspect the grades would be lowered," says Kathy Haynes of Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, president of the society's local branch. "A big chunk of how we gave the grades had to do with funding -- whether something had a dedicated funding stream." The City is broke and still has no access to the bond market. The society of civil engineers has launched a program, "Friends of Infrastructure," to awaken local leaders to 19th-century downtown pipes, and bridges, roads, water and sewer lines, storm drains, and the like that were built following World War II and now need maintenance or replacement.

But the campaign is not likely to sway politicians, says David Bainbridge, associate professor of sustainable management at Alliant International University's business school. "Repair and maintenance of infrastructure is outside of politicians' time cycle," says Bainbridge, noting that the city of San Diego faces $4 billion to $5 billion in deferred maintenance and delayed capital improvement programs. "Anything that takes six or seven years to fix is not worth it for politicians. Also, they like something with sex to it." Sewers aren't sexy.

For almost two decades, City government has been aware of dangerously ancient infrastructure, particularly in older neighborhoods, says City Attorney Mike Aguirre. But politicians "have taken out core money that should have been dedicated to infrastructure: $173 million for the Qualcomm stadium makeover, $300 million for the ballpark, $1.4 billion for retiree health care, and at least $1.5 billion for pension." The solution? "We have to reorganize our general plan, saying that before we do more construction of housing, we have to achieve infrastructure goals. We're going into an era of climatic change with an infrastructure like New Orleans has." San Diego and other cities that import water must understand what global warming may portend. "There has to be a transition from a growth-oriented economy to a sustainability-oriented economy."

But San Diego is just not ready for a growth moratorium or, say, bans on sewer and water hookups -- all of which would present legal problems. "I don't think city council will listen to a statement that there will be no further condo development until infrastructure is brought up to date," says Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California senate. "Who owns city council? The developers own the San Diego City Council." But the council might be willing to state that infrastructure should have a higher priority than housing, says Mills.

Councilmember Donna Frye has fought the hardest for infrastructure. In a big housing project, builders are supposed to supply infrastructure. The politicians will approve residential projects on that basis. But "too many deals were struck where the promises never materialized," she points out. "You cannot require new development to come in and pay for the projects that didn't get done in the past." And new development creates further problems: "People say when there are more users on the system, there are more users paying, and they are right. But when you add more capacity to the infrastructure, the cost is much larger."

City officials love to talk about revenues a housing project may generate, but they never discuss the costs, such as infrastructure expense. This is particularly true with redevelopment and the Centre City Development Corporation. It boasts, for instance, that condos supposedly built as a result of the ballpark project provide tax revenue. However, Centre City doesn't point out that the condos are subsidized, says Frye, and it doesn't reveal the associated costs of infrastructure and services. "Don't just tell us the revenue side. Show the expenses as well," says Frye. "What are the costs of redevelopment? Tax money goes back into more redevelopment, and the general fund has to bear the infrastructure and services expenses. It's disinformation -- the old bait and switch."

Centre City says that of its $217.5 million budget this year, $75.1 million is set aside for infrastructure. It claims it is revitalizing C Street downtown. It has put $80 million into the downtown library. It is developing new parks.

"But is the C Street project more important than spending money on fixing sewer and water pipes?" asks Mills, who thinks the library project is another waste of money.

Frye points out that Centre City is only one government problem. "The planning department is one of the most important departments in the City, but it gets cut to pieces." Plans may be in place but may not be followed. "Much of what happens in the Development Services Department is political, based on relationships and cronyisms and campaign contributions." (See Sunroad.) "It's a revolving door. People who work for developers go to work for the City, and people who work for the City go to work for developers." (Again, see Sunroad.)

There are more than 40 community planning groups in the city's various neighborhoods. Many are infrastructure-conscious. "But sometimes the developers come in and run rampant over the process," says Frye. "It is always more difficult for the community than the developers, who have attorneys, experts, lobbyists." Otay Mesa planning has been taken over by developers. After an expensive fight, developers essentially got control of the Point Loma community planning group, once controlled by activists.

Throughout local government, "The developers have the time and money to get their way," says Bainbridge.

According to some, one of the biggest roadblocks to better infrastructure is San Diego's attitude toward taxes. "[Mayor Jerry] Sanders says he will not raise taxes," says Mills. "That is disingenuous. There is no way to get out of this economic bind without raising taxes."

Agrees Erie, "We want the services and infrastructure but don't want to pay for them."

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