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Part 2 — Roadblocks to Repair: A history of cracks in fixing the streets

La Jolla's intersection of La Canada and La Jolla Hermosa Avenue shows cracks and asphalt patches.
(Trace Wilson)

This is the second 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 explores the past, present and future of local street repairs and how La Jolla factors into the larger road map of San Diego.

Despite changes to administrations, technology and budgets, lawmakers representing La Jolla and San Diego at large have had challenges in repairing local streets. Some of those hurdles were part of the political give and take, but others involved major changes in how road repairs are done citywide.

The La Jolla Light reached out to current and former leaders for a look at the various pitfalls in fixing potholes and making larger road repairs.

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?”

Past problems

La Jolla resident Sherri Lightner, the City Council member for District 1 from 2008 to 2016, said that during her first term, pothole repairs often were difficult because the city was not yet using geolocation technology. So when a resident reported a pothole, crews would have to find it. Further, crews would only repair that pothole, even if another was nearby.

But during the administration of Mayor Jerry Sanders from 2005 to 2012, council members were granted pothole repair weeks in which crews would go to an area and fix potholes as they found them.

“We did 100 [fills] in La Jolla during my pothole repair week,” Lightner said.

During Lightner’s second term, then-Mayor Kevin Faulconer (2014 to 2020) instituted a “one dig” policy to complete multiple utility repair projects in the same area at once, resurface the street and then place a moratorium on projects when a street had been resurfaced.

“It used to be that a city department would come in and fix something [under the street] and then another department would come in and tear it back up again,” Faulconer said in 2014. He wanted to “get everyone in one room — sewer, water, utilities, stormwater, sidewalks — and dig up the street once and apply a moratorium after where you cannot come back in there and tear up that street or sidewalk.”

With all new jobs, he said, once the repairs were done, the street would be completely repaved “curb to curb.”

But the one-dig policy, Lightner said, came with its own obstacles.

“It was particularly hard in [La Jolla] Shores because we had [utility] undergrounding going forward and the construction on Avenida de la Playa [to replace underground sewer and water lines, which took place on and off for four years]. So we couldn’t repave the streets because of those plans. Resurfacing in The Shores was desperately needed, but because there was so much work planned, it was put off.”

Further, the city’s attention was on executing Phase I of the Torrey Pines Road Corridor project, which created continuity of the sidewalk and buffered bike lanes, among other safety-oriented additions, on both sides of Torrey Pines Road between Prospect Place and La Jolla Shores Drive.

That effort started under Lightner and was finished under her successor, La Jolla resident Barbara Bry, who was District 1 councilwoman from 2016 to 2020.

Bry echoed some of Lightner’s experiences, saying, “The city has limited resources and it was always a community effort.”

Given that resources were being used on Torrey Pines Road, Bry would respond to community concerns on other streets and budget them the best she could, she said.

“We would ask the community to set priorities for inclusion in the budget memo, but that was districtwide, not just La Jolla,” Bry said (District 1 includes communities such as Carmel Valley, Torrey Pines and University City, in addition to La Jolla). “The city had also done a street assessment, so they were focusing on streets that were in the worst condition. We had to fit within that.”

During her term, however, she facilitated installation of concrete panels on the street in front of La Jolla’s Casa de Mañana retirement community, speed humps on Draper Avenue and curb cuts fronting the YMCA on Scenic Place.

Lightner said the city “only has a five-year plan [for street repairs], but that is not sufficient. I think you need to have longer-range planning for infrastructure, given the longevity of infrastructure. The city is really big. It’s a daunting thing to maintain. Street projects have to get permits from the city just like every private citizen, so there are delays there.”

Current conditions

Current District 1 Councilman Joe LaCava, a La Jolla resident, said that during Faulconer’s administration, the goal was “to focus on slurry seal [as a street repair] because that was the least expensive. … It is a very dramatic impact. When you see that slurry seal, it really is very, very visible what you’ve done.”

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

By comparison, total reconstruction of a street costs about $6 million per mile.

LaCava said current Mayor Todd Gloria’s administration and the current City Council are trying to be “candid and transparent about the condition of our roads and then try to figure out how we’re going to tackle” them.

“We are way behind in this city in keeping up and maintaining our roads,” LaCava said.

Via del Norte in La Jolla shows wear and tear.
(Trace Wilson)

Gloria last year introduced the “Sexy Streets” initiative, a two-year citywide program to resurface roads, mostly in communities long considered underserved. La Jolla Parkway was identified as part of the initiative earlier this year.

Gloria’s press secretary, Courtney Pittam, said Sexy Streets differs from earlier efforts in that it will “focus on quality road repairs using data from the Climate Equity Index to help evaluate and prioritize streets in historically underserved communities.”

“In a time of limited resources,” Pittam said, “street resurfacing will be concentrated on roads that San Diegans use the most and will include additional ‘Complete Streets’ elements. Efforts may consist of safety enhancements, transit and multimodal upgrades, expansion of the city’s tree canopy, additional streetlights and other enhancements that could be considered part of the overall resurfacing efforts.”

"[The city] only has a five-year plan [for street repairs], but that is not sufficient. I think you need to have longer-range planning for infrastructure.”

— Sherri Lightner, former San Diego City Council member

City spokesman Anthony Santacroce said Sexy Streets “is a welcome supplement to the city’s street paving program and will bring much-needed repair to select streets in La Jolla.”

LaCava said the main obstacle to getting more roads repaved is a lack of funding. “We have too little dollars and therefore we try to be a little bit judicious in terms of where we use them,” he said.

Asphalt overlays — installing a new layer of asphalt on top of the existing surface at a thickness of one to three inches — are “a very expensive proposition,” he said. They cost about $880,000 per mile.

“So we get the dollars we need,” LaCava said the city is looking to increase fees under a street preservation ordinance that became effective in 2013 and states that utilities and others that trench or damage roads must pay to help the city fix the roads.

He said the city also is limited by where it can get money for road repairs.

“Some dollars have strings, saying they can only be used for maintenance. Other dollars that we can get at the local or state level say you can only use them for a complete pavement restoration,” LaCava said. “It’s juggling all those strings and different buckets of money that we can get access to.”

He echoed earlier comments by Santacroce that street repairs also must wait for completion of planned projects such as utility undergrounding and sewer replacement.

LaCava said the city’s Engineering & Capital Projects Department is working on a new website that “will allow the public and the council members to actually see which projects are scheduled. … I’m very excited. They think that will probably go live in about two months.”

Coming in Part 3: How street repairs are prioritized, and the La Jolla-specific issues that can present obstacles.