No one seems to know where San Diego’s worst potholes are. A pothole is forgotten unless it’s driven over frequently, and then it is instinctively avoided. Drivers swerve into the next lane, then back again once the danger is behind them. At businesses located in front of potholes, employees hear the loud clunk of rims plowing into the unexpected holes. What they don’t hear are the drivers worrying how badly out of alignment their cars have been thrown. In that respect, potholes are a business.
Tim Witucki, 53, has worked as a mechanic at Service Specialists – Exclusively BMW, downtown, since 1976. I spoke with him last spring. “I’ve installed lots of shocks, and I can tell you that potholes not only hurt the shocks, but they hurt the wheels, probably more than the shocks. You can bend a wheel fairly easily by hitting a pothole. The shocks will take the punishment, but the wheels won’t. They’re usually aluminum or steel, and some of the high-end wheels cost a lot of money to replace.”
“Trucks are made a little more sturdy,” Witucki continued, “but I’ve known axle spindles to break from hitting potholes. Lightweight passenger cars aren’t designed to take that kind of hit. The suspension also suffers. We see bent control arms, struts, and even some of the paneling under the car gets torn up from the potholes.”
Witucki laughed when asked how badly San Diego’s potholes rated. “With all the construction going on around here, there are more than enough potholes. Especially downtown. There are more potholes downtown, going down 11th or 10th — just about any street there are a lot of potholes and cracks. Eastgate Mall in University City is a really bad street.”
One of Witucki’s coworkers commented that the worst thing about hitting a pothole is “it makes you spill coffee on your crotch.” Witucki went back to listing the potential damage potholes can inflict. “Internal panels get loose and start rattling. If it hits your tires just right, you can get tread separation. Rims. They really hurt a lot of things.”
Roland Luque, 48, is the public works superintendent of roadways, street division, for the City of San Diego, a position he had held for two and a half years when we talked last spring. “I’m in charge of the street and sidewalk system,” he told me. “We have five superintendents here in the street division and each with a major part of the division to oversee. In my division, I’m in charge of 102 people.” A native San Diegan, Luque had worked in road maintenance for 23 years.
Luque’s office was located in a complex of buildings at the Chollas Operations Yard. Across from Chollas Park near College Grove, the yard used to be the entry site for Chollas Landfill. Behind its entry gate on Caminito Chollas were road sign shops and maintenance vehicles of every description. Temporary buildings supplemented the permanent ones built in the early 1960s. Every aspect of building, maintaining, and repairing San Diego’s streets originated from this facility.
The city keeps a database of San Diego potholes. “We take all the requests from all the ways they come in,” said Luque. “It can come from citizens calling in, from another department, and even from our own folks out in the field. We use SAP software — it’s very powerful and tracks all the work that we do, whether it’s street maintenance, street repair, sidewalks, traffic signs, signals, street lights, street trees — all those types of functions are in the database.
“Through our own folks and the calls that notify us, we are constantly updated. In 2001, we patched 42,000 potholes, but those are the ones we knew about. How many more are out there, I don’t know.”
Repairing the simplest potholes doesn’t require any preparation, and they can often be filled in about 15 minutes. Larger potholes take longer, especially if workers must clear away debris or loose material, which may require a jackhammer. “If you’ve got a smaller divot in the surface, that’s pretty easy to fix, depending on where it is,” said Luque. “If it’s right in the drive lane, where a tire hits it, then, for us, that’s something that’s really important to fix. Then you have other areas of deteriorating asphalt, where there are a series of potholes or there’s been a water-pipe break, and that makes the asphalt ripple. Now you’re talking about a big pothole.”
Another factor in pothole repairs is the material used to surface the street. “For the most part, we have oil-based black asphalt,” Luque said. “Then we have concrete, which is gray or whitish in color. Many years ago, concrete was used extensively for a variety of reasons. It was used by the WPA [Works Progress Administration] under Roosevelt when they were expanding the infrastructure of a lot of our roads. It’s a lot stronger than asphalt and it lasts a lot longer, but there are also some negatives to concrete; particularly that it’s very expensive. Back then it was much more reasonable.
“The great thing about concrete is that its design life is 60 years. The average design life of an asphalt street is 20. Now the only time we use concrete is when the grade of the street is steep enough to where asphalt won’t work. But most of the neighborhoods that still have concrete were built between 1918 all the way through the mid-1930s. The downside is that concrete is not made to mess with. You get these ‘expansion joints,’ where the panel is broken up so it’s allowed to expand and contract with the weather, which causes the little tapping sensation you’ll get driving over it. But you don’t want to disturb it — and all of our utilities are in the street, which is a problem. We don’t overlay concrete streets with asphalt. What we do is replace panels, because we can’t take out a whole street of concrete and put it back again. When they replace utility lines on an asphalt street, they dig a big trench and put in the new pipes and bring the trench up and restore it. On an asphalt street, they’ll do maintenance on the street while they are there: they’ll get a slurry-seal coating or resurface it with a new layer of asphalt. But with concrete, there are no maintenance options. So in the older neighborhoods with concrete streets, they would fill the trench with concrete, and even though it’s a different color, that’s the way they’re going to leave it. But they’re supposed to leave it smooth enough so that the driving surface is decent.”
A variety of factors play into the creation of potholes. Since the average design life of asphalt is 20 years and much of San Diego has been developed in the past couple of decades, the pothole problem has been growing since the 1980s. The biggest factor, however, is weather.
In Eastern cities, the phenomenon of freeze and thaw creates pothole nightmares, as the subbase expands and contracts, causing “subbase upheaval,” according to Luque, and as the moisture that has intruded into the asphalt particles expands and contracts, causing the pavement to fracture. Further compounding the problem back East is the salting of roads during snowfalls. “The salt particles become embedded into the pavement,” said Luque. “The corrosive nature of the salt strips the liquid asphalt from the aggregate. It’s like taking away the glue that holds everything together. Secondly, the expansion of the built-up embedded salt particles combined with moisture fractures the pavement.”
In San Diego, the biggest contributor to an eruption of potholes is a rainy winter. “When it comes to asphalt streets, rain is your worst enemy,” Luque said. “In San Diego, we’re in a desert, but we still get our fair share of rain. In the road-maintenance business, we jump up and down and cheer for dry winters! The drought conditions, given the resources available for us to do our job, help us to not get further behind. When we have a really wet season, the water will find every weakness in the asphalt structure and it will pop. It’s called ‘spalling.’ Once you introduce moisture, that’s when the asphalt will start to break up.”
Another factor in pothole creation, says Luque, is the weight of the vehicles that pass over a street. “That’s called ‘vehicle loading.’ We could have millions and millions of passenger cars going all over the streets of San Diego every day, multiple times, and it wouldn’t bother us at all. One bus or one truck is another problem. Just one 18-wheeler is worth 3000 cars. When our roads were designed, I don’t think the designers ever envisioned articulating buses — those are the buses that are actually two city buses joined at the center like a caterpillar. That type of what they call ‘concentrated vehicle loading’ on the surface of the street causes a lot of problems for us — not only asphalt failure but potholes in general. Where buses stop at the bus stops, you’ll see where we’ve put big pads of concrete, because concrete is a lot harder. We are trying to develop programs to put bus pads at all the locations where buses stop, but there are tens of thousands of locations where they stop. It’s a constant problem for us, because the asphalt will shove. It looks just like the ocean — there are waves, because the weight of the buses has ruined the subbase structure and the asphalt has moved.”
Another, lesser, cause of potholes in San Diego’s mild climate is heat. “We do get some heat expansion,” Luque says, “because sometimes it gets kind of warm here. We don’t get a lot of it, and it doesn’t affect our concrete streets as much as it does our sidewalks. Every once in a while you’ll see how heat expansion just pops the panels up. They can rise as much as four feet. It’s the strangest phenomenon I’ve ever seen.”
Older parts of town are more likely to be pocked with potholes. “The populations are more dense in older areas — they’re not like subdivisions in Rancho Bernardo or Peñasquitos,” Luque said. “In North Park, they may take out 2 bungalows and put up 15 apartment units. Now you have 15 families living there, whereas in 1942 you had 2. You can’t stop progress, and next to water, construction is asphalt’s worst enemy.
“Anytime you disturb the street surface, it’s never going to be the same. Whether it’s putting up a new restaurant, new housing, or those lofts that are going up in Little Italy — they all need brand-new gas lines and feeds for water. Downtown is in this constant state of flux. There are also a lot more buses and commercial vehicles making deliveries downtown.”
The street division competes with other city services for its budget. “There is no average-sized pothole,” Luque explained, “but we have to come up with some kind of figure, otherwise how would we match resources to do what we need to do? The figure we use for the average pothole is $32 to repair. I could never find us enough money to fix them all.
“In the [2001–2002 fiscal] year, our budget was $765,000,” Luque continued. “[In the current fiscal] year, it’s up to $778,555, but that’s mostly for increased labor costs and inflation. As far as resources to fix the problems, there is no increase. We’ve been at static levels for the last few years. That’s where it starts to get a little political, but I’m more of an operations guy. I have to take what’s available to me and try to do the best I can to serve the public. If you asked everybody in the different divisions, they will all tell you that they are always begging for more money, because they can’t do everything they need to do. Now, elected officials have a hard job, because they have to figure out how to allot the money. I mean, we have to buy fire hoses, we need more policemen on the street, we need to build playgrounds. We need all these programs to take care of all these needs of our customers, and I’m just one of those needs. I need money to fix the streets and keep them in good shape. It’s a constant battle.
“We get money from gas taxes — it goes to the state and I have to ask for it back. We have general-fund money. We have TransNet money [from a half-cent sales tax] and money from federal and state programs for road and bridge maintenance. But my general-fund money is the same money that buys policemen to put on the street or do other things.”
Eight pothole-repair crews serve the city of San Diego. “Each crew can repair as many as 15 to 20 potholes a day,” Luque says. “But it depends on how big they are and how many tickets [service requests] they have.” In the midst of the El Niño rains of March 1998, then-mayor Susan Golding claimed that the city normally repaired 16,000 potholes annually. She said that crews had recently repaired 6000 in three weeks, including 1300 in one day.
“Customer” is the term Luque uses when talking about city residents. He has respect for the customers’ needs, and he tries to convey that to his staff. According to Luque, every neighborhood gets equal attention. It’s a myth, he says, that upscale areas get preferential treatment. “That’s a misconception that’s been around for many years. We service all the communities and listen to all the citizens, regardless of what neighborhood they’re in. Are some communities better organized? And is their voice louder because they’re better organized? Possibly. Do they get better service for that? In the way I go about my business, I’d say no. I treat everybody the same, because everyone has their needs. Take La Jolla: Is that an older part of town? Yes. So do they sometimes get service because they are older? Yes. But so do San Ysidro and parts of Kensington and North Park. In the same respect, most of Rancho Bernardo is newer, so we get less calls for there. But it’s not based on economic levels. I grew up here, and I know the streets of this city like the back of my hand. I know where some of the problems are, and I think I can make a difference. We’re not here drinking coffee and playing cards.”
Complaints get attention, Luque says, but not enough people bother to make them. He described how complaints are processed. “We’ve been online for about two years with our system, which allows us to take a lot of information and organize it better. Our goal is to fix 90 percent of the potholes within 48 hours, and we’ve met that goal for the last two years since we’ve gone online. If you call on the phone, it goes into the computer. If a pothole is set as a priority because it is an extreme safety hazard, then it is radioed out to a crew and it’s usually patched in half an hour. If the pothole is more of a standard or routine hole, then it falls into 90 percent of our requests, which are fixed in two days.
“If I look at this like a regular guy and not a city employee,” Luque said, “I can understand how some people get very upset about potholes not being repaired. I once had to call Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. I think they have a 75-story building, and I must have worked my way up every floor by speaking to a phone on each floor, trying to get to the right person that could help me. In our case, I think when people say they have had to yell loudly, it’s possible that they have moved around a lot of government departments and they lose their patience, because each time, someone transfers them on the phone, and some of the city employees aren’t quite sure who to get in touch with. I think that’s where the frustration level really sets in. Someone may say, ‘I’m tired of all this, I’m calling the mayor.’ That’s fine, you can call the mayor, but I don’t think that’s the fastest way to get it done. All of our trucks have a bumper sticker with the phone number for reporting potholes. I speak at community meetings throughout the year, and I’ll take stacks of cards with the number and ask people to pass them out to their friends. If you have trouble or think you got the runaround, we can track who you talked to, when, what they said, and what they promised you. It’s all in the computer.”
The pothole line is 619-527-7500 (one can also report broken traffic signals and downed street signs here and request other street services; the phone book lists the number in the government section, under City of San Diego, Streets). Once someone calls in a pothole report, a staff member enters the pothole into the computer. “They try to ascertain how bad the pothole is,” Luque explained. “Is it a safety hazard? Are there children around? Has anyone fallen? They will set a priority for it, and it is automatically sent to the proper maintenance supervisor for the proper area of town. It is then lined up in the worklog of requests, and we can approach it and fix the pothole. If a lot of people call about one location, that will bump it up in priority, regardless of what priority we originally gave it, because it’s affecting a lot of folks. If ten people call in on the same pothole, we try to get out there and see what’s going on. But if a pothole is not in a drive lane or in the way of any pedestrian traffic, it can sit there for months.”
Although most potholes are repaired in the daytime, a night crew is available for emergencies. “We have somebody on call 24 hours a day — not just for potholes, but for accidents where somebody knocks over a sign or a tree limb is blocking the road in a storm. We use a special type of asphalt that can be used in the day or night, dry or wet. It’ll stick to anything, but it’s very expensive, so it’s only used in emergencies.”
Without an increase in the street division budget, Luque said, “the only other thing we can do to improve is to try to be more efficient at patching potholes. We have a new machine — we’ve had it a couple of years — that allows us to repair potholes using only one person rather than an entire crew. But it only works with certain potholes, the kind that don’t have to be prepped. It’s a big truck with a snorkel on it. The man in the cab can bring the snorkel over the hole and fill it in. It’s called the Roscoe Automated Patcher, and we’re one of the first cities in the nation to use it. We’re finding we can get a lot more done with these and it’s safer. You never have to leave the cab of the truck. Right now we have three. We also have heated-patch trucks — they’re more conventional — they keep the asphalt warm and have jackhammers.
“We don’t think of a pothole patch as temporary,” Luque continued, “but there are other things that can make it temporary. It’s never that people don’t care or are not doing their job right or using the right materials. Some repairs last for years. Other times, because there are other filled areas around that are loose, it can last three days, then pop out.
“Most people don’t believe us, but if we pass a pothole on our way to a location for a reported repair, we don’t drive over it. We stop and fix it. The problem is, by the time a call gets to my department, people are often very upset and frustrated. You’ll hear this same story again and again: ‘I’ve driven over this pothole five times, and if I have to drive over it again, I’ll really let somebody know!’ My point is, if you’d called us after you drove over it the first time, you’d only have to drive over it maybe once or twice more before it would be fixed. I want the public to know, as soon as you see a defect, call it in. If we mess up, if it falls through the cracks and we don’t fix it, then call and yell at us, but don’t drive over it every single day and get mad at us because we haven’t fixed it yet.”
The potholes that result from wear and tear are only part of the equation. A larger number of potholes are caused by “trenching” — digging trenches to repair or replace sewer and utility lines. When trenches are refilled, they often sink below the level of the street.
Last spring, a section of trench potholes lay along a one-block strip of India Street between Spruce and Sassafras Streets. The uneven surface annoyed not only the drivers but also the businesses on the street. Rich Crawford owned Prestige Motors, a high-end car dealership on that block. Crawford made no attempt to hide his disappointment with road maintenance. “There are times when I’m driving certain portions of our highway system and I feel like I’m in a third world country. Here we are, one of the most envied nations in the world, yet sometimes our infrastructure would lead you to believe otherwise. I would think that the contractors that work for the city could be a little more diligent when they put up temporary steel plates — particularly when you’re driving at night. They could put up a placard or temporary light to warn us. You can do severe damage to a car’s suspension or undercarriage just hitting the plate at the legal speed limit. You can see it in the daytime, but at night, you can’t. You could be going the legal speed limit and literally bottom out a high-performance Porsche, BMW, or other car with a nice suspension — or any car.
“I’d like to think that the city and county would have the presence of mind to coordinate the utilities to use the same trench once,” Crawford said. “But oftentimes they will have one utility trench, put in their services, then dig up the very same trench and put the second utility in. I’ve seen this happen three or four times, where a road is dug up continually and the interruptions impact everybody: drivers, business people — there are safety issues, stability issues, and, most importantly, cost issues to the taxpayers and utility companies. For the life of me, I cannot understand why they cannot coordinate. I understand that they have to be at different depths and all that, but they should coordinate where the deepest-depth utility can come in and lay, then have the next company come in, and get it all done at once. Redigging the street two, three, or four times is unconscionable, and if I or any other business owner ran their business that way, we’d be out of business. When you think about it, we’re all taxpayers and so we all pay for this foolishness and mismanagement. The traffic engineers say, ‘Well, we can’t force the utilities to work together,’ but that seems like a real waste of resources.”
Gene Matter, an associate civil engineer for the street division, has worked on street maintenance for over a decade. According to Matter, the construction crews that refill the trenches can do a lot to prevent the development of potholes. “The most important thing is compaction. Poor compaction when they are doing trench restoration causes a lot of problems. A lot of the utility companies, whether they’re city entities or private, don’t compact the materials properly. If the material is not compacted enough, it will settle over time. The street above it will tend to deteriorate and you will get water infiltration and the material will sink. Many of them surround gate valve caps — the metal caps that are smaller than manhole covers.”
A gate valve, Luque explained later, “is like a faucet handle. It is used to turn on and off certain water facilities, like fire hydrants. These valves are housed in metal cylinders set into the street surface with a metal cover.”
Matter continued, “I can show you 40-year-old streets — concrete or asphalt — that have not been trenched that are in really good shape. I can show you other streets that have been trenched, even concrete streets, and they’re in terrible shape. If the pothole surrounds a gate valve cap, we don’t have the responsibility to repair it. That’s another entity’s work that they should be responsible for. You don’t want your gas tax dollars spent to correct something that your water bill should be paying for. The water bill includes paying for the maintenance of the water infrastructure.”
Like his boss, Roland Luque, Matter was frustrated by the lack of public concern for infrastructure. Our interview took place last year the day after the city council’s budget hearing for street maintenance. “It was a bummer. Nobody showed up from the public to talk about the importance of street maintenance. Last year, two people showed up to talk about street maintenance. We had more people show up to talk about the public library system than street maintenance. There were about 40 people there to talk about the library.” The proposed street-maintenance budget of $778,555 for fiscal year 2003 had been approved.
Bill Fair, 59, a public works supervisor for the street division, has worked in construction for 30 years. According to Fair, trenches are the culprit in 70 percent of street repairs. “Potholes are usually just weak spots in the asphalt, or where water found a seam to get under there and deteriorate the subbase. In the past few years, with all these fiber optic and telecommunications trenches that they’ve put all over town, they’ve created seams for the water to go in and undermine the base material.”
At 9:15 on a Monday morning, Fair and his crew, Gary Hosford and Malcolm Richardson, headed downtown to 10th and B. There had been complaints of a nasty pothole at the Burger King, where the drive-through exit met the street. Upon examination, the pothole appeared to be two inches deep, but Fair said that was enough to upset a car’s suspension and annoy a driver. A second pothole nearby had not been reported. The crew would fix this one too.
After the heated-patch truck had stopped near the pothole, Hosford took a hose with a special nozzle and sprayed the pothole with an emulsion-bonding agent. The truck’s hopper contained three tons of hot asphalt. The back door from which the material was emptied looked like the entrance to a furnace; when the door was opened, pungent smoke emerged. A conveyer belt dumped about 250 pounds of asphalt (a small amount) onto the street, and Hosford and Richardson scraped the material over the pothole. Richardson used a shovel and Hosford used a “lute” — a rake designed for this purpose. Richardson had coated the shovel with an oily soy-based substance to prevent the hot asphalt from sticking. A push broom was used to keep the asphalt from drifting into the lane, where it would create more bumps in the road. The men worked quickly while also dancing around traffic. A steady stream of cars exited the drive-through, and cars coming off 163 raced past. Only two orange cones diverted vehicles out of the far left lane where the men worked. Fair pointed to a puddle of water near the curb, evidence that the potholes had been caused by poor drainage from the businesses on Tenth Avenue.
After Richardson and Hosford had created the “skin patch,” Richardson turned on a motor and detached a portable heavy roller from the truck. He sprayed the roller with the soy-based substance. Fair emphasized the importance of rolling over the asphalt to compact it — a task that took a special skill. Too much or too little rolling would ruin the job. Correct compaction gave the asphalt more strength. Richardson manipulated the roller as if it were a power lawnmower. When he was finished, Hosford took a coffee can filled with sand and shook the sand over the patch to make it dry more quickly. The entire process took nine minutes. Fair estimated that the patch would be completely dry in one hour. As soon as the first patch was finished, they got to work on the second. Fair was not a stand-around supervisor, as proven by his willingness to shovel asphalt with his crew.
Richardson had been repairing San Diego’s streets for four years. “Sometimes we get people yelling at us,” he told me, “asking why we took so long to fix a pothole. Some people come out and thank us. A lot of them are really surprised at how quickly we respond.” When asked what the meanest response he ever had from a citizen was, Hosford, a nine-month veteran, said that he couldn’t repeat it for publication. “We get responses almost daily. Some of them are nice, but we get our share of angry people too. A lot of people are just grateful that we are here.”
As Fair looked over the job, he said that the patch would probably be temporary. He pointed to the concrete trench patching all over the street. “This street really needs to be milled and repaved.” When a street is milled, it is ground down with a large machine to remove the failed street surface. “I don’t know when this street is scheduled for that,” Fair continued. “They schedule them when they get the money. And a lot of streets are on utility-hold. They know that there are certain underground utilities that need to be repaired, and we now have a system in place where we can call and make sure we don’t do any work where there’s going to be a repair.”
While city crews get paid to repair potholes, other crews get paid to create them. Julio Martinez worked for the Ortiz Corporation, a private construction company that had contracted to lay new sewer mains throughout the city. Of course, neither Martinez nor his crew intended to create potholes. Martinez said his company worked hard to prevent trenches from sinking. “We take soil samples and do compaction tests with inspectors. We’re very aware of soil compaction, and we try to do the job right.”
Last spring, at the intersection of Sutter and Ibis in Mission Hills, a 3H- by 6-foot pothole, 3 inches deep, surrounded an SDG&E valve cover, the result of a trench that had sunk. Drivers making a right turn from Ibis Street went straight into the pothole. As they drove by, some cars moved to the left, avoiding the pothole. Others made a loud clunk as they plowed into it.
Jay Waelder’s house sat across from the intersection. Waelder, a construction manager, said he felt frustrated about the pothole but had low expectations about anyone repairing it. “It’s probably been there for about eight months. It’s kind of fun watching the cars go up and down as they drive through. I haven’t called the city because the hole is there as a result of an SDG&E gas-line repair. They didn’t recompact it well enough and do the patch right. I haven’t called SDG&E either. If you take a look up and down the street with what the city does with the sidewalks, you can see that the general standards are low, so the pothole seems like a pretty minor thing. People driving by here can go 45 miles per hour, so it can get hairy as people get a little out of control.”
Waelder’s neighbor, Dr. Thomas Johnson, was equally disgusted with the condition of the street. “It’s probably been there for the last year, year and a half or so. It’s a result of the street work they’ve done and the sewer. They’ve actually dug it up several times since then in the last year. I haven’t called anyone about the pothole. We have trucks out here all the time from the city. It hasn’t personally caused me any problems. I notice the cars that hit it, but it’s a pretty common occurrence around here. Most of the streets are in pretty bad disrepair.”
In this older area of San Diego, the original concrete streets have been paved over with asphalt. “When you consider that this street was completely repaved just a few years ago and we already have significant cracking going on, the resurfacing job was really substandard. It’s deteriorated in a very short period of time. Most of the neighborhood went up between 1910 and 1920. My home was built in 1918. If you look down at the asphalt job, you can see how it’s created a shallow curb.” Dr. Johnson watched a car approach the pothole without slowing. “There he goes, right over the pothole.”
The city stopped overlaying concrete streets with asphalt in 1995. “The asphalt surface was not lasting as long as it should have,” Luque explained, “due to combining two different types of pavements, one flexible, one rigid.” Another problem was that “adding three inches of asphalt over the existing concrete surface tended to change the drainage characteristics of the street. In a major storm event, flooding could occur. Also, the expansion joints from the concrete surface reflected up through the asphalt surface creating cracks and an uneven, noisy driving surface.”
Another neighborhood resident found the pothole on Sutter Street annoying but took it in stride. “There’s another pothole as you’re coming up Washington and turning off to University — it’s at the far side of the right lane. If you hit it, it’ll take your axle out.”
Ben Cherski had just driven over the pothole. He didn’t seem upset, especially as he compared it to another experience. “About a year ago, up in Del Mar, I was driving home at night with a couple, and we get this terrific crash. And I don’t see anything on the road — no markings, not anything else. So the next day I went out and took pictures of it. There was a hole at least that big [he holds his hands two feet apart] where they had run a water connection to a new development. No markings, no anything else. If a motorcycle had hit it, the driver would have killed himself because he would have lost control. As it was, it cost me about $600 in damage to my car. I wrote the city, and the water department said that it was a contractor and they had no obligation, no responsibility whatsoever. There was no way at night you could have seen that thing. It was dead flat with no markings at all.”
While most potholes don’t stand out in one’s mind, an area with bad roads is remembered, even after the roads have been fixed. A limousine driver claimed that La Jolla Boulevard was one of the worst areas in San Diego for potholes, but a drive through La Jolla proved that the road had been paved over and smoothed. Two deliverymen from Jerome’s furniture store thought that University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard had the worst pavements in the city. When I drove east on University from I-15 last spring, the street was heavily patched and bumpy. There were a lot of potholes, but the city was resurfacing the street in sections. Many of the potholes were elevated or sunken manholes or valve covers recessed below the pavement. Past Euclid Avenue, the situation improved.
The city’s strategy seemed to be to keep the busy streets in good shape and allow the side streets to stay blighted. The signature clue was the newness of the pavement: the blacker the asphalt on the main street, the worse the condition on its side streets. Turning off University onto 52nd Street, I found the surface once again cracked and bumpy, especially in and around intersections where drainage flows were prevalent. Trojan Avenue between 52nd and College was particularly bad, with a two-inch-high elevated patch in the eastbound lane that could easily throw a speeding car out of control in this residential area. From College Avenue to the west, El Cajon Boulevard was being resurfaced, making what was once one of the bumpiest areas in the city relatively smooth. The resurfacing ended at Fairmount Avenue, where a huge cement patch sat right in the intersection. Besides the plethora of old, sunken patch jobs, El Cajon Boulevard was covered with spray-painted markings made by various utility companies for repair work.
A convenience store clerk said that Adams Avenue had bad potholes, but Adams Avenue was near the completion of its own repaving. Antique Row, between Park Boulevard and 30th Street, was still rough, but the road crew was moving westward. In Normal Heights, the avenue was smooth and black, until you took a side street. Thirty-Sixth Street between Mountain View Drive and Adams Avenue was bumpy except for the portion that crossed Adams Avenue. South past Adams, the street looked smooth, but it sent the car up and down with its hidden bumps — an example of why the city stopped covering concrete streets with asphalt.
Back on El Cajon Boulevard, I encountered a huge patch in the westbound right lane that was elevated on one side and sunken on the other. Complementing this was a sunken gate valve cap at least four inches below the pavement. When I asked a motorist stopped at the intersection if this was one of San Diego’s worst potholes, he told me I should look downtown.
Exiting 163 South to Tenth Avenue, I could not avoid the potholes. The street was scarred for several blocks with a long concrete patch, complemented by other patches, fissures, cracks, sunken manhole covers, sunken valve covers, and elevations in the asphalt. Every lane offered a bumpy ride. The long, uneven trench patch got worse farther south. Eleventh Avenue was no better. A right turn from Market to Ninth guaranteed a plunge into a pothole bordered with cracked asphalt.
Luque’s claim that the city took no regard of an area’s economic status seemed to hold true — at first. Driving eastward on Market Street or Imperial Avenue past I-5, I found relatively good pavement. But when I made a right on 30th Street, the pavement turned bad. A long, uneven trench patch ran for several blocks, and the rest of the street had cracks and rises. While 30th and the other busier streets were paved over with asphalt, the neighborhood side streets were still concrete. The cracked and patched concrete streets had not survived their 60-year life expectancy well. Ocean View Boulevard running east from 30th was in very poor condition, with lots of potholes, particularly in front of the Health and Human Services building. After I crossed the bridge over I-15, the pavement improved, until I turned off onto a side street. Thirty-Sixth Street was cracked and pockmarked. Two particularly nasty potholes awaited southbound drivers approaching Logan Avenue.
The communities of Southcrest and Shelltown, along the National City border, are among San Diego’s poorest neighborhoods. As I examined the horrid condition of the streets, I wondered if they were so bad because the city didn’t care or because community residents — many of whom don’t speak English — don’t call the city to complain. The intersection of Newton and Goodyear Streets had a recessed manhole cover at least three inches deep. This had the potential of cracking an axle, in a neighborhood whose residents could least afford the repair. Shelltown’s streets were the worst I found in my search for potholes.
Although the older sections of San Diego tended to have more problems, particularly since more maintenance had been done throughout the years, newer areas were not immune to the pothole phenomenon. The side streets off Balboa Avenue and Clairemont Mesa Boulevard showed signs of age. Many of them were patched and bumpy, although there had not been as much trenchwork here as in the older sections. Genesee Avenue winds from Interstate 5 in La Jolla all the way to Linda Vista. Eastgate Mall in the Golden Triangle had lots of bumps and potholes as it headed west from Genesee to I-5, and then it improved. Another Genesee side street is Marlesta Drive, which leads from Tecolote Canyon into Linda Vista. It is also the back way to Mesa College parking lots. Exiting one lot, I found a round pothole before the stop sign that was 16 inches in diameter and 3H inches deep. Most of the drivers who plunged their tires into it didn’t seem to mind, probably because of the slow speed at which they made contact. One young woman driving through it in a Blazer 4X4 said, “What pothole?” Examining the exit from inside the parking lot, I noticed that the pothole was only part of the problem. The pavement was uneven and chopped with a bad patch, most likely something campus security would prefer to keep as a makeshift speed bump.
San Diego Avenue in Middletown seemed under a special curse. The center northbound lane approaching Washington Street had a pothole 25 by 54 inches, 3H inches deep at its lowest point. A result of spalling, the pothole had a “tail” that curled into the right-hand lane. The pothole was always filled with water. Uphill is a Mobil station with a car wash and the India Street Art Colony, which has seven restaurants — all of which drain in the pothole’s direction. Since its position was downhill, an alert driver could spot it and swerve away, but others did not.
Sharon, a Mobil station attendant, was aware of the pothole. “It’s been there such a long time, I couldn’t even tell you. No one complains on my shift. But things get stuck in it. It’s all wet and muddy and yucky. It’s pretty deep. I don’t think the car wash is responsible, because none of our water passes our entrance. It could be from them cleaning up the parking lot at El Indio. They’re always doing roadwork or plumbing work around here, and everything comes toward us.”
Betty maneuvered her new Nissan Infiniti around the pothole as she came to a stop. “I’m aware of it. I drive by here frequently. I become aware of it when I get close and slow down.”
David Rieber, a Mission Hills resident, avoided the pothole as he approached the stop in his Toyota Camry. “I drive by here every day. It’s been there for about two months. Previous to that, it had been patched, and prior to that, it had been a pothole for about six months, and prior to that it had been patched.” Rieber had never called the city to complain about a pothole. “I really don’t notice all that much except for this one.”
Rieber thought political pressure was an effective tool for getting streets fixed. “We had a real bad paving situation in front of our house for a long time. After repeated phone calls to the city street department, after months of no action, we finally called a city council representative, and practically overnight, the situation was taken care of. It was Byron Wear’s office. The paving near the curb had deteriorated to the point where there was a crevice six inches deep.”
Rieber’s companion, Linda Brown, was less hopeful. “The city just doesn’t respond. We also had a water pipe leaking in front of our house. It was our next-door neighbor’s, but it rolled down in front of our place. We saw someone from the water department out working and asked about repairing it, and he said it was the street department’s problem, and the street department argued that it was water’s. It was at least six months before they fixed it, and we called every day. We went up and down the street to get other people to call. It was wasting thousands of gallons of water, and it went on for months. It was finally resolved when one of the new city council candidates came knocking door to door. Our neighbor complained directly to him, and he did something to take care of it. It was Faulconer. They complained directly to his face, and the paving crew was there practically the next day.”