That bucket-sized pothole on your Chula Vista street probably won’t be fixed soon. “We don’t necessarily work on the worst first,” says Rick Hopkins, the South Bay city’s director of public works.
There is a strategy behind this statement, though not always a popular one.
Hopkins explains: “Because to rebuild a road in bad condition is ten times the cost of preserving a road that’s still decent. In other words, if I spent all of the little money that I get fixing the really bad roads, then I’m going to have a lot more bad roads next year because I didn’t put money into preventative maintenance.
“About seven years ago, we [the public works department] came to the realization not to work on the worst first because so many of our roads were becoming unsalvageable…. Since then, we’ve tried to carve out 10 to 15 percent a year on reconstructions [roads in bad condition] but that varies on the money available.”
David Danciu, a commissioner on the Growth Management Oversight Committee, said, “Mr. Hopkins’s plan for road repair makes sense only to a certain extent. When Chula Vista had big budget problems, fine. As the economy improves I would hope that priorities might be adjusted. Is that a pipe dream?”
Hopkins asserts that nobody in his business is happy with the funding they receive and “we can’t magically make the roads nice without money. We pretty broadly say that we only get about half the money we need to take care of the roads in Chula Vista. We need about $11 million and we spend about $5 [million] to $6 million, depending on the sales tax and gas tax generated.”
Funding for road repair comes from several sources. The federal government collects, and disburses, 18 cents per gallon of gas. SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments) also collects a half-cent sales tax per transaction countywide. The tax proceeds are divided up countywide between transit, highways, local roads, environmental mitigation, and bicycle lanes.
Like all cities, Chula Vista could also choose to spend money from the general fund — although the general fund is just recovering from the recession.
There is an interesting correlation between environmental concerns and road funding: the more we drive gas-economic or electric cars, the less tax is collected at the pump — therefore there is less money to repair roads.
Hopkins points out that the revenue stream from the 18-cent tax is “petering out. More people are trying to be green…. Sure, it’s helping the environment, but it’s not helping take care of the infrastructure.”
Hopkins noted that an increased population puts pressure on the roads. Although many of the gas-economic cars are lighter and don’t tear up the roads, more people means more trucks going to supermarkets, more trash trucks, and more construction trucks. “The lighter vehicles don’t put as much wear-and-tear on the pavement — it’s those heavy axle loads that create potholes.”
Hopkins calls the rainy season “high pothole season” and described how potholes begin as cracks in the road’s surface:
“Anywhere there are cracks in the pavements, the cracks get water in them, the water seeps down below the asphalt surface and gets into the base material, which is sand and rock. And as that water collects, when a wheel hits the pavement above, it squeezes that water down below, it pumps the base material out from under the pavement and creates a void…and before long you have a pothole.”
This description is worrisome when one begins to count the number of cracks in the city’s streets.
Chula Vista is known for a stark east/west divide. The condition of the roads usually tells the tale of two cities — west side roads are decades older, and fissures and potholes abound.
Yet, some Chula Vista residents urged me to take a look at the east side, in particular streets in the Rancho del Rey development. One street, Via Armado was perhaps worse than any road I saw on the westside.
Via Armado is so thoroughly pitted and cracked that, as one resident, Felino, told me, “Cars are often damaged when they go down the street.” Felino says he calls the city often to complain about the street because “there is a lot of dust and little pieces of asphalt fly out from under car tires.”
Another Rancho del Rey resident, Dennis, said he was concerned about “the broken glass theory.” He said “If a street looks run-down, people may treat it like it is run-down and be less inclined to keep up their property.”
He said if this road had been maintained properly from the beginning, it wouldn’t need reconstruction.
Dennis also suggested that Corky McMillin Company should “pony up.” He said the city should engage the company in a conversation about the state of the road because a lot of the damage occurred when construction trucks used the road when McMillin began developing to the east of Rancho del Rey.
A west side resident also brought up the McMillin Company. Judy Cave said First Avenue between H Street and G Street “is just terrible. They just put in nine or ten new homes in that section, but the road leading into the development is very bad. It’s a new McMillin development, and there were trucks and all sorts of heavy equipment on that road. I was surprised that the developers didn’t have to contribute a little bit to improve the road.”
But the road that concerns Cave the most is Medical Center Drive, which leads up to Sharp Hospital. “This is the street ambulances use to take their patients up to [the] emergency [room] and it’s awful. It has potholes and is caved in certain areas and the asphalt is loose.”
Hopkins says there is no east/west divide when it comes to road repair, because computer algorithms establish priorities. There is an annual evaluation of Chula Vista’s streets and the data is fed into a computer.
“There may be a perception out there that we ignore the streets on the west and take care of the streets on the east, Hopkins stated, “but what we’re doing is running it through the computer. The truth is, we used to spend most of our money on the west at the expense of streets in the east.
“The computer knows each segment and knows the assessed condition. [It takes] the amount we have to spend on roads for preventative maintenance and it will run through some algorithms. So, if it’s a major arterial or high-speed road, like H Street or Olympic Parkway, then those are going to get more attention in the hierarchy prioritization than a residential street that has a cul-de-sac on the end.
“Obviously you have more liability if a car hits a pothole on a 50-mile-an-hour street as opposed to going 10 miles an hour pulling into a cul-de-sac.”
When asked if Mello-Roos money could be used to repair the eastside roads, Hopkins said no. Mello-Roos taxes are only used to put in the initial infrastructure.
Computer algorithms also take the politics out of the hierarchy of which road to fix first.
“What we don’t do,” Hopkins says, “is when one of the councilmembers calls up and says, ‘Hey, I’m getting all these complaints about this road over here...can you go do something about that?’ — we’ll go look to see if we can fix it temporarily, but unless the system indicates that should be one of the next priorities, we don’t run out and pave that road; we try to stick to the methodologies that come from [the computer]. That kind of takes the politics out of it. Years ago it was whoever screamed the loudest.”
There is a new smartphone app for reporting potholes, sinkholes, and sidewalk damage in the city, which Hopkins thinks, is “kind of cool.... If someone is walking their dog and they see a sidewalk that has been shifted because of a tree root, and it’s a tripping hazard, they can whip out their smartphone and take a picture and send it to us. They will get reports back from us when we expect to get to it, and then when it’s completed they’ll get another message.”
But David Danciu said not to hold your breath about getting a sidewalk fixed. “About three or four years ago, a city truck came by after I reported a serious problem with a front sidewalk. The worker painted arrows on the sections to be repaired. After three years, the arrows had worn off so they came out and painted new arrows. [Hopkins] told me that was progress and I moved up the list. Pretty soon I will need new arrows once more.”