Potholes Are Big Politics in San Diego

Amid a contested mayoral race, deferred road maintenance costs end up front and center.

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We know that people vote their pocketbook, but in San Diego the local politicians are betting they'll vote their potholes, too. Earlier this month the Los Angeles Times reported that street repair has played an integral role in the city's mayoral campaign. At a vote last week — which reduced the field to two candidates for a November runoff — the winner was Carl DeMaio, with 32 percent of the vote, who ran on a platform of "Pensions, Potholes and Prosperity."

Potholes are certainly a problem in "America's Finest City." An audit from November 2010 found that only 38 percent of San Diego streets were in "good" condition and that insufficient investments in infrastructure, partly in response to financial limitations imposed by the recession, had created nearly $378 million deferred maintenance costs [PDF].

A follow-up report, released this April by the San Diego County grand jury [PDF], found that things had only gotten worse. Officials now estimate it will take $478 million for the city to meet minimum national standards of acceptability. The longer the city delays, the more money it needs to catch up: for every dollar spent maintaining a road in fair condition, it takes $6 to $14 to rehabilitate one in poor condition, according to the report.

The current administration, led by Mayor Jerry Sanders, has tried to address the problem. It established a new street division and set up a hotline to report potholes as well as "Pothole Saturdays" — occasional days dedicated exclusively to street repair after the rainy season. In 2009 the city borrowed $100 million to fund resurfacing, but disorganization led to major delays: less than half the money (roughly $45 million) has been spent to date, reports the Voice of San Diego.

DeMaio, a Republican and current City Councilman, wants fewer bumps in the road. He took the lead on creating a free smartphone app that residents can use to report potholes (as well as graffiti, broken lights, and other civic eyesores). He also released what he calls a "Save Our Streets" action plan [PDF] to address the repair situation. The plan estimates that the city may need to spend in the area of $116.6 million a year from 2013 to 2017, just to recover a modest level of acceptability.

The cornerstone of DeMaio's plan is an "infrastructure lock box" that would place any revenue generated above the city's budget into a fund meant to go "toward roads before anything else." His updated figures suggest the lock box could generate upwards of $480 million over five years. Later this week he'll present the lock box as part of a REPAIR initiative he'd like to see on the ballot in November.

DeMaio's opponent this fall will be Democratic U.S. Congressman Bob Filner, who received 30 percent of the vote last week. Filner has been less vocal on the topic of potholes — he failed to respond to a candidate summary on the topic compiled last fall — but he believes DeMaio's plan can't be achieved, according to the Times. At the final mayoral debate, Filner agreed with the words of another candidate, Nathan Fletcher, who challenged the wisdom of DeMaio's focus on streets:

Imagine if the aspirational goal of a city is to fill potholes. "San Diego strives for mediocrity."

Outsiders might tend to agree that the matter has been overblown. But if you live in San Diego and want potholes near you fixed, the election really does mean something, according to research on the subject presented at an academic meeting last spring [PDF]. Craig M. Burnett of Appalachian State and Vladimir Kogan of UC-San Diego examined 2,600 pothole repair requests made by San Diego residents in 2009 and found a close link between political power and response time.

Burnett and Kogan determined that residents of precincts that supported incumbents of the City Council had their pothole requests filled a day earlier than the average three-day wait time. In two districts where council members weren't running for re-election — in other words, had little interest in maintaining constituent votes — the response was less swift than in districts where re-election was possible. (It's worth noting here that the city's street division pledges to fix potholes on a "first come, first served basis.") The researchers conclude:

We found that San Diego’s Street Division was more responsive to pothole repair requests from complainants who reside in areas associated with the electoral base of each member of the City Council.  This result held when we controlled for term limits. In fact, we found that termed out legislators had little incentive to help their core constituents. Our results also suggest that important political actors — such as the council president and the mayor — may be influencing the city’s street repair program to reward their allies and punish their political opponents.

Rarely has the idea that "elections have consequences" taken such a concrete form.

Top image: Nescereckis/Shutterstock.com

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