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Part 1 — Roadblocks to Repair: A look at La Jolla’s streets and the challenges in fixing them

Park Row, a few blocks east of La Jolla Cove, has cracks and uneven surfaces.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

This is the first part of a La Jolla Light series that looks at the conditions of area streets, seeking to answer the question, “Why does it seem so hard to get roads repaired?” The series will explore the past, present and future of local street repairs and how La Jolla factors into the larger road map of San Diego.

For years, La Jollans have lamented the conditions of area streets. Their grievances have been aired at community planning meetings, their letters have filled the La Jolla Light’s Opinion pages and their calls have reached San Diego City Council offices. Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, says the No. 1 concern the City Council hears involves issues with streets.

San Diego’s current street network encompasses about 3,000 miles. That includes 2,668 miles of asphalt, 120 miles of concrete and 204 miles of paved alleys.

In La Jolla, many of those streets are rife with potholes, deep cracks and uneven surfaces.

Local architect and urbanist Trace Wilson, who has spearheaded many proposals to beautify neighborhoods in La Jolla, said the state of the streets is “a disaster.”

La Jolla comprises 3 percent of San Diego’s population but accounts for 20 percent of the city’s general fund through taxes and fees, according to Wilson, a member of La Jolla’s Village Visioning Committee. The community doesn’t see enough of that directed back to La Jolla, Wilson said, which he believes breeds anger and frustration.

“If La Jolla was improving properly,” Wilson said, “it would be so vibrant.”

Romero Drive is a narrow street in a La Jolla residential neighborhood.
(Courtesy of Trace Wilson)

Brian Earley, a La Jolla Shores resident who is chairman of the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board, identified four La Jolla streets he said are most in need of repair:

• La Jolla Village Drive between Villa La Jolla Drive and Torrey Pines Road. “This has to have the highest volume of traffic in La Jolla,” Earley said, since it’s a common route for people entering La Jolla to go to UC San Diego and the nearby health and science institutions.

Patching on La Jolla Village Drive “is so extensive, [it’s] turning into a minefield of ruts and bumps,” Earley said.

• La Jolla Shores Drive, where repaving “has seen multiple delays due to the inactivity of SDG&E and the city for the undergrounding of utility lines,” Earley said.

La Jolla Shores Association President Janie Emerson said the entire length of La Jolla Shores Drive is among the worst. “It’s like running a dodgeball court to avoid the potholes.”

• La Jolla Parkway. Though this major southern entrance to La Jolla is slated for repaving soon under Mayor Todd Gloria’s “Sexy Streets” initiative, Earley said its current state creates dangerous driving conditions and an impression of La Jolla as “neglected.”

• La Jolla Scenic Drive South as it turns into Via Capri. “The cement was so broken up, the city had to put asphalt on it to keep it from flying up and hitting the car that is driving over it,” Earley said.

La Jolla Village Drive between Torrey Pines Road and Villa La Jolla Drive
La Jolla Village Drive between Torrey Pines Road and Villa La Jolla Drive is on La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board Chairman Brian Earley’s list of La Jolla streets most in need of repair.
(Bing Maps and La Jolla Light)

T&T Vice Chairman Dave Abrams, who served as the board’s chairman for several years, said Via Capri and La Jolla Parkway “are very bad” and added that “Nautilus Street is a mess right now” due to utility projects taking place.

Emerson said several streets west of La Jolla Shores Drive also are in various states of disrepair. Some are “like a washer board” and others are patched to the point that they resemble a checkerboard, she said.

Noting that The Shores is full of residents and beach visitors, Emerson said the city needs to ensure the streets are “safe for people and families all year-round.”

Some have suggested the streets got to this point because of piecemeal repair projects. Emerson said one of the problems is the city fills potholes cheaply, leading to the need for repeat fills.

In Bird Rock, some streets recently were resurfaced with slurry and are in “acceptable” condition, according to Bird Rock Maintenance Assessment District representative Barbara Dunbar. But others are “riddled with cracks, potholes, uneven pavement, areas of subsidence, weed growth and more,” she said.

“In general, most of the major streets through and into and out of La Jolla or those used as alternate access routes are in dire need of repair,” Dunbar said. “The inconsistent quality of slurry seal, roadway repaving and roadway maintenance (such as pothole repairs) is part of the problem affecting and afflicting La Jolla and other areas of the city. Less-than-adequate pothole repairs and resurfacing just adds to short-term problems.”

Dunbar noted that streets deteriorate at different rates due to the speed, weight and number of vehicles using them.

“The streets should be properly maintained on an ongoing, scheduled basis based upon deterioration and usage,” she said. “Preventive maintenance should also be done on a regular basis so that vehicles, including bicycles, are not damaged or subject to dangerous conditions and so pedestrian safety is maintained.”

So with all of this being said, why does it seem so hard to fix local streets?

Overall Condition Index

San Diego spokesman Anthony Santacroce said the city uses a complicated matrix to decide which streets to repair and how — and much of it doesn’t favor La Jolla.

Factors include an Overall Condition Index rating, whether the area is slated for projects that would break up the street’s surface, the volume of traffic on a particular road, the type of road, its maintenance history and the dreaded “funding availability.”

The 100-point OCI rating system classifies streets in one of three categories:

• Good: The street has little or no cracking and very few potholes or other problems. It has excellent drivability and needs little maintenance or remedial repair. A street in good condition has an OCI rating between 70 and 100.

• Fair: The street has moderate cracking, minor potholes and adequate drivability. It typically needs remedial repairs and a slurry seal. A street in fair condition has an OCI rating between 40 and 69.

• Poor: The street has severe cracking and many areas of failed pavement with possible base failure, and is a rough ride. It qualifies for comprehensive repair or total reconstruction. A street in poor condition has an OCI rating between 0 and 39.

The city started using this system in 2011, when a contractor drove around with a camera to record street conditions. A second inventory was conducted in 2015 with the intent to repeat the process once every five years. However, after the second study, “the city had a pretty good idea of the scope of work and knew there was enough work we had to do,” Santacroce said.

After a recent storm drain repair project on Cave Street in La Jolla, the road was resurfaced and restored.
After a recent storm drain repair project on Cave Street in La Jolla between Prospect Street and Coast Boulevard, the road was resurfaced and restored.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

According to a report to the City Council from its Infrastructure Committee in 2016, “factors for determining OCI include type of street, age, oxidation, deterioration rate, average daily traffic, type and size of cracks, number of potholes, previous maintenance and quality of ride.”

Other criteria for determining which streets to repair include whether the area is slated for trenching projects such as putting overhead power lines underground, volume of use and the impact a closure for repairs might have.

“The biggest thing is projects that are underway or scheduled to be underway,” Santacroce said. “We aren’t going to repave a road just to bust it up again. We coordinate our road repairs with the numerous infrastructure projects, because road paving is part of any project. We have to be cost-conscious.”

Planned utility undergrounding projects in La Jolla have been delayed until at least 2023, except for projects in three areas that had started and then stopped and are expected to be done this year. One of those areas is La Jolla Shores around La Jolla Shores Drive.

“In general, most of the major streets through and into and out of La Jolla or those used as alternate access routes are in dire need of repair.”

— Barbara Dunbar, Bird Rock Maintenance Assessment District representative

There are different types of road repairs, each costing six figures or more per mile — “which is why we’re so judicious about not paving,” Santacroce said.

For example, slurry seal — a pavement preservation method consisting of asphalt emulsion, sand and rock applied to the street surface at an average thickness of a quarter-inch — costs $130,000 per mile.

Asphalt overlay — installing a new layer of asphalt on top of the existing surface at a thickness of one to three inches — costs around $880,000 per mile. “A lot of streets need [that],” Santacroce said.

Total reconstruction of a street costs about $6 million per mile.

The 2015-16 condition assessment survey determined that 60 percent of city streets were in good condition and 34 percent were in fair condition. Many La Jolla streets got similar ratings.

So why do many La Jollans feel their roads are a disaster?

‘Thousands of miles to go’

“People perceive things differently from what the numbers say,” Santacroce said. “We are paving roads, but when you are driving and see this pothole or a deep crack on one road, you focus on it.

“La Jolla is unique in a lot of ways, but how they feel about roads is not unique. Everyone feels the roads are bad, no matter what the conditions are. San Diego has a history of infrastructure not being seen to over the decades. There is a lot to make up for. ... The current and former mayoral administrations have done their best to pave and repair, but there are still thousands of miles to go. It can lead to frustration when people see it has not happened.”

Santacroce also noted that when the city repairs a street, people immediately start driving on it, which starts the process of damage all over again.

To see how your street rates and when it might be resurfaced, visit streets.sandiego.gov.

Coming in Part 2: How past and current city officials promised to fix the roads, and the obstacles they’ve encountered.