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Part 3 — Roadblocks to Repair: Is fixing La Jolla’s streets an uphill battle?

La Jolla's hilly terrain is one of the obstacles to getting streets repaired.
La Jolla’s hilly terrain is one of the obstacles to getting streets repaired, along with the volume of cars heading into The Village every day.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

This is the third 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.

As one of San Diego’s older communities, La Jolla is rich with history. But with age comes aging infrastructure, including streets. And those older streets have to withstand tens of thousands of cars, La Jolla’s hilly topography and water exposure.

Those and other factors, including the city’s methods for making repairs, are driving the current state of the streets, which residents and community leaders alike agree needs a lift.

It wasn’t always that way in La Jolla.

Carol Olten, historian for the La Jolla Historical Society, said street paving started in town around 1915 with Torrey Pines Road, then streets within The Village.

According to “La Jolla Year by Year” by Howard Stelle Fitz Randolph, Prospect Street soon followed. In 1919, La Jolla Boulevard was paved to connect La Jolla to Pacific Beach.

In La Jolla’s “business section,” Girard Avenue and Exchange Place were paved in 1922. Silverado Street was finished the next year, followed by Wall and Cave streets and Ivanhoe and Fay avenues in 1925.

“From then on, little by little, all the main streets of The Village were paved,” Randolph wrote.

At the time, the material of choice was concrete.

“Pretty much all of La Jolla’s streets were done with cement” as the community was being developed, Olten said. “People were so sick of the dirt roads. The streets became a dust bowl in the dry time and a mudslide in the winter.”

The 1920s were a time of wealth and prosperity, Olten said, and La Jolla was a mecca for resort traffic because of its cottages and hotels by the sea. However, many of La Jolla’s visitors arrived by trolley.

“Cars were so scarce,” Olten said. “There were a few cars regularly parked in front of the hospital, but it was not common to have traffic on the streets.”

But by World War II, authorities switched from concrete to the more cost-efficient asphalt to pave streets, and soon after, many people switched from public trolleys to private cars.

In the decades that followed, aging water, sewer and storm drainage pipes under the street needed repair or replacement. That work tends to damage a road’s original integrity, said San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava, the current representative for District 1, which includes La Jolla.

Street pavement “is a cross section of asphalt and base material and subbase that really gives it the overall structural strength, irrespective of what kind of soils you have underneath supporting it all,” said LaCava, a civil engineer by trade. “When you trench in a street to do some kind of pipe replacement [and] refinish, that trench is never as strong as the original road was.”

Diane Kane, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association and a member of the La Jolla Village Visioning Committee, agreed, saying: “The original streets we had have lasted a long time, but they get cut up for utilities and upgrades that go down the middle of the street. Then they pour in a strip where the material doesn’t match, so it cracks and water starts getting in. The asphalt overlays look great for six months but don’t stick to the concrete.”

An asphalt patch on an otherwise smooth street in La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

La Jolla’s topography compounds the problem, LaCava said. In the areas closer to the coastline, such as along Coast Boulevard, the “asphalt roads are very flat. … What we find is that those flat roads tend to sag a little bit, which means water gets trapped.”

“When cars drive over those puddles, it pushes that water into the asphalt pavement and tends to loosen it up and break it up even faster,” LaCava said. “That’s why the pothole patches don’t last very long.”

On streets that are inclined, like Via Capri, concrete works better, he said.

Via Capri is a mostly concrete street that traverses Mount Soledad. Many residents there have complained that it is cracking and crumbling. However, “replacing concrete pavement is much more expensive than repairing asphalt streets,” LaCava said, which adds to the backlog of roads waiting for funds to repair them.

Citing dangers to drivers along Via Capri, La Jolla resident Sven Zabka presented several ideas for improving the street to the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board during its March 16 meeting online.

There are different types of road repairs, but each costs six figures or more per mile.

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.

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

“I think it has come home to roost that it is finally noticeable. But the problem is, when it gets to be noticeable, it’s too late. Once the roadbed goes, you have to recompact and reseal from scratch, which is what needs to happen in La Jolla.”

— Diane Kane

Kane agreed that in La Jolla’s hilly residential areas, streets must be repaired to be long-lasting.

“The patching [the city] requires … causes cumulative damage,” she said. “Crews throw more and more asphalt, and the road gets thicker and thicker. In areas up on the hillside, streets are subject to something called ground creep, which simply pulls the top layer down when it gets too heavy.”

In addition, the volume of cars flocking to La Jolla is beyond what the streets were intended for. Torrey Pines Road, for example, carries an average of 60,000 vehicles a day between The Village and La Jolla Village Drive.

“Streets serve the same purpose they always have, which is to get people from place to place, but cars have changed,” Olten said. “The streets were narrower [in the beginning] because cars were small. Trucks in those years were tiny and now we have these huge semis. One of the things causing damage to our street is when we create so much weight on cement, you are going to crack it. It’s a given.”

The city has gone through several approaches to street repair in the past couple of decades.

Before geolocation technology was used, crews responding to a resident’s report of a pothole would have to search for it. Then they would repair only that pothole, even if another was nearby.

From 2005 to 2012, City Council members were granted pothole repair weeks in which crews would go to an area and fix potholes as they found them.

During Kevin Faulconer’s mayoral administration (2014 to 2020) the city went to a “one dig” policy, in which it would complete multiple utility repair projects in the same area at once, resurface the streets “curb to curb” and then place a moratorium on new projects once a street had been repaved.

But with many utility undergrounding projects planned or going forward, much roadwork was put off to avoid tearing up recently repaved streets. That continues today.

“The biggest thing is projects that are underway or scheduled to be underway. We aren’t going to repave a road just to bust it up again,” said city spokesman Anthony Santacroce.

A comprehensive maintenance plan, Kane said, “is not sexy but it has to be done. It’s easy for politicians to kick the can down the road until it gets people’s attention. I think it has come home to roost that it is finally noticeable. But the problem is, when it gets to be noticeable, it’s too late. Once the roadbed goes, you have to recompact and reseal from scratch, which is what needs to happen in La Jolla.”

Coming in Part 4: Current San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s “Sexy Streets” initiative focuses largely on improvements in communities long considered underserved. Where does that leave La Jolla?