February 21, 2024
How bad are San Diego streets? Survey shows where are worst

A comprehensive new survey shows San Diego’s streets have dropped sharply in quality since a similar survey in 2016, and they now rank well below streets in comparable cities such as San Francisco, San Jose and Phoenix.

The new survey drops the overall pavement rating for San Diego’s streets from a score of 71, which placed them near the bottom of the “satisfactory” category, to the middle of the “fair” category with an updated score of 63.

But many local streets, especially larger streets that carry more vehicles, are rated much lower. More than one third of the city’s 2,800-mile network of streets is rated either poor, very poor, serious or failed.

City officials say San Diego’s lower rating, which is based on a survey conducted by lasers last spring and summer, is a call to action that demands significantly more funding for road repair.

They are proposing a plan to more than quadruple annual spending on road repair for the next eight years so the city’s rating can rise back to 70, which is considered the industry standard.

The city would spend $213 million per year compared to its annual average between fiscal years 2013 and 2023 of $46.4 million.

A car drives over cracked pavement on the 4200 block of Orchard Avenue in Point Loma.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Money approved for road repair more than doubled during the ongoing fiscal year, from $58 million to $140 million. But that amount is still 52 percent short of the annual amount officials say is now needed to reach a 70 rating.

Once the rating of 70 is reached, which is expected to happen in the eighth year of the plan, the city’s annual costs could be dropped back down to about $85 million. That would make for an annual cost of $188 million, on average, over 10 years.

“We truly face a decision point as a city,” said Bethany Bezak, director of San Diego’s Transportation Department. “If we don’t invest any more than our typical $46 million, in 10 years we will be at a 45 rating. We are at a fork in the road.”

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The request for more cash comes as the city faces large projected budget deficits for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, and the next four fiscal years after that.

Based on similar road quality surveys in other cities, San Diego is far behind. San Francisco’s most recent rating was a 74, while Houston got 73, San Jose got 71, Phoenix got 70 and Los Angeles got 67.

But San Diego’s rating of 63 is higher than some smaller West Coast cities. Sacramento’s most recent rating was 58, Long Beach got 56, Portland got 55 and Oakland got 53.

Cars pass through an intersection full of crumbling pavement.

Drivers make their way past crumbling asphalt and concrete on the corner of National Avenue and South 26th Street in Barrio Logan.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The survey notes that San Jose spent twice as much money as San Diego on road repair during fiscal year 2023, despite being much smaller. San Jose’s road network is 1,940 miles, while San Diego’s is 2,800 miles.

It also notes that San Francisco’s budget for fiscal year 2024 includes six times as much money per mile for road repair as San Diego’s budget per mile, even as San Diego devoted the most it ever has.

Pavement quality is relatively consistent across San Diego’s nine council districts, ranging from a 57 in District 2 to a 69 in District 5. All the other districts got scores between 61 and 67.

The biggest drops since the previous survey were in District 6, which fell from 74 to 62, and District 1, which fell from 75 to 65. The smallest drop was in District 5, whose streets fell only from 70 to 69.

Bezak said it makes sense that District 2, which includes Clairemont and Point Loma, has the lowest rating because it also has the largest number of major and connector streets.

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The overall rating for those types of streets, which typically connect residential areas to commercial areas and freeways, is in the low 60s on average.

In contrast, the average rating for residential streets and slightly busier local streets is closer to 70.

Along with releasing the long-awaited 65-page survey this week, city officials are proposing a five-year road repair plan that uses a complex new formula to determine which projects should get prioritized.

Bezak said city officials have never been in a better position to make smart, strategic decisions on road repair because they’ve never had such a detailed, accurate and up-to-date survey.

“We’ve never been in a position before where we’ve had all of this information all in one place,” she said.

The new road repair plan allows residents to use the website streets.sandiego.gov to see when particular segments of road are slated for repair work, whether it’s funded and whether it will use slurry seal or overlay.

The website previously only featured road segments that were slated for paving if they were fully funded.

A pothole on the corner of South 27th Street and Boston Avenue.

A pothole on the corner of South 27th Street and Boston Avenue.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Providing residents more information about when their street and others nearby will be paved fulfills a request the county grand jury made last summer for more transparency from the city on repair plans.

The five-year plan is based primarily on what Bezak calls the best-value approach. She said it was chosen after city officials explored different scenarios, such as repairing only the worst streets or only the best.

“The idea is to fund the right streets at the right time so it’s the most cost-effective,” she said. “You want to catch streets about to drop into a lower category with the right treatment.”

The strategy is also based partly on a new City Council policy that added more criteria to road repair decisions beyond cost efficiency.

The new criteria include traffic volumes, how recently a street was repaired and proximity to schools and shopping centers. The city will also add, for the first time this year, social equity as a tie-breaking factor.

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If two road segments end up with the same score, segments in areas deemed disadvantaged will get funded first.

To be deemed disadvantaged, an area must be in a census tract eligible for federal block grant funding, in a promise zone or in a community of concern as defined by the city’s climate equity index.

The new survey is also an opportunity for the city to begin tackling 62 miles of unimproved roads that were recently added to the city’s streets network.

Primarily in Districts 2, 4 and 8 but also in areas spread across the entire city, the roads range from partially paved to completely unpaved dirt. Bezak said the cost estimate to pave dirt roads and bring them up to standard is $22 million per mile.

Evidence of crumbling asphalt and cracks appears throughout the neighborhood streets.

In the residential community on Mayita Way in Tierrasanta, evidence of crumbling asphalt and cracks appear throughout the neighborhood streets.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In conjunction with the survey, the city also released a detailed assessment of the costs of shifting a significant amount of pavement work away from contractors to in-house city crews.

The city plans to have its own crews perform up to 20 miles of overlay work per year — an amount the assessment showed it could do more cheaply than contractors, although it faces high upfront costs for equipment and a work yard.

In addition, many workers beyond the 110 city employees now devoted to repairs would need to be hired.

The pavement survey will be followed by a long-awaited city audit evaluating how well the city spends the many millions devoted each year to road repair.

That assessment is expected to find that repair efforts are inefficient and should be handled more holistically and strategically, a conclusion the grand jury reached last year.

City Auditor Andy Hanau said the audit will likely be released at the end of January.