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Part 4 — Roadblocks to Repair: Are La Jolla’s streets ‘sexy’?

Some La Jollans wonder why more dollars aren't spent fixing the community's cracked concrete and asphalt roads.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

TAKE OUR POLL: Where should La Jolla stand among the priorities in San Diego’s ‘Sexy Streets’ initiative for road repairs?

This is the fourth 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 many streets in San Diego, including La Jolla, sag from age and the weight of heavy use, Mayor Todd Gloria is looking to make them attractive again.

Gloria’s “Sexy Streets” initiative aims to fix cracked and crumbling pavement and get potholes plugged. It also intends to do so with a focus largely on parts of the city long considered underserved — what the city calls “communities of concern.”

The city will focus on “quality road repairs using data from the Climate Equity Index to help evaluate and prioritize streets in historically underserved communities,” according to Gloria’s press secretary, Courtney Pittam. The Climate Equity Index is a 2019 city study, revised in 2021, that evaluated San Diego communities on several factors, such as health and mobility, to assess the potential impact of climate change on them.

The prioritization process also will consider pavement conditions, street classifications, traffic loads, maintenance history and proximity to crucial infrastructure, as well as City Council input, according to a December memo to council members from Gloria’s senior policy advisor, Brittany Bailey.

“In a time of limited resources with an overwhelming backlog of poor-quality roads, this analysis is critical to ensuring that public tax dollars … have the highest return on investment,” the memo read.

The City Council approved about $40 million for “Sexy Streets” in August. About 54 miles of roads are expected to be repaved in work taking place this year and next.

Only two miles of that are in council District 1, which includes communities such as La Jolla, Carmel Valley, Torrey Pines and University City. The paving plan there includes three streets, all in La Jolla: Paseo Bonita and Clemson Circle — two tiny cul-de-sacs in the La Jolla Mesa neighborhood — and La Jolla Parkway.

Districts 4, 8 and 9 respectively have 29, 17 and 33 streets slated for repair under the program. Those districts encompass neighborhoods such as Chollas View, Encanto, Lincoln Park, Barrio Logan, Otay Mesa, San Ysidro, Sherman Heights, City Heights, College Area, Mount Hope and Rolando.

San Diego’s total street network covers some 3,000 miles, and many area residents believe $40 million isn’t nearly enough, compared with the need.

A 2015-16 city condition assessment survey determined that 60 percent of city streets were in good condition and 40 percent were in fair or poor condition. Many La Jolla streets got similar ratings.

The report noted that was better than a 2011 assessment that rated only 35 percent of the streets in good condition.

But city spokesman Anthony Santacroce acknowledges that “people perceive things differently from what the numbers say. ... When you are driving and see this pothole or a deep crack on one road, you focus on it.”

He also acknowledged that “San Diego has a history of infrastructure not being seen to over the decades. There is a lot to make up for.”

Focusing largely on communities of concern is a way to start doing that, Gloria and other city officials say. “All San Diegans deserve streets in their communities that are in good shape,” the mayor said last year.

The term “communities of concern” refers specifically to census tracts that were determined to have “very low, low or moderate access to opportunity” under the Climate Equity Index, Santacroce said.

He said the CEI will be updated later this year with information from the latest census in 2020.

Neptune Place is one of several La Jolla streets that could use repair.
(Courtesy of James Rudolph)

The city’s approach to distributing resources for fixing the streets comes off as a “Robin Hood plan,” in the words of La Jolla Community Planning Association President Diane Kane, in that it “takes from the rich to give to the poor.”

Trace Wilson, a La Jolla architect and member of the Village Visioning Committee, said La Jolla makes up about 3 percent of San Diego’s population but accounts for a much larger percentage of the city’s general fund through taxes.

He said he reached that conclusion through a fiscal analysis done years ago to see if La Jolla could become its own city. The analysis looked at how much a community contributes to the city’s general fund to measure the loss should that community become its own city.

From that 2005 study, he extrapolated “escalations” for 2016 estimates, Wilson said.

“Generally, the city of San Diego is about 1.3 million people and this report accounted for 46,300 people in La Jolla and the amount they generated that goes to the general fund,” Wilson said. “It was estimated [for 2016] that La Jolla’s contribution to the total city of San Diego general fund revenues would be $42.7 million. Then I escalated that number [following the rate of inflation] to get to 2022 [values]. This number takes into account property tax, transient occupancy [hotel] tax and a slew of other fees and taxes that flow to the general fund from 92037,” La Jolla’s ZIP code.

Looking at property tax alone, the estimate for La Jolla was $22 million in 2016, when the city’s property tax revenue for the general fund was $122 million, he said. That would make La Jolla’s contribution 18 percent.

Wilson argues that it creates frustration when the collection of money doesn’t match the level of repairs.

“La Jolla has high expectations for San Diego,” he said. “All La Jollans are willing to give, but when we drive streets that are horrendous, it’s an issue. A lot of visitors are regional, and to not have the city support the amenities in La Jolla isn’t right. If they were to focus on fixes in La Jolla, there would be more money flowing [from tourists].

“La Jollans want people to be well, but the response from the city breeds anger and frustration.”

San Diego spokesman Jose Ysea was unable to immediately furnish the city’s 2016 numbers but told the La Jolla Light that in fiscal 2017, ZIP code 92037 generated just over $38 million of the $354 million in property tax revenue in the city’s general fund, amounting to 10.78 percent.

In fiscal 2021, Ysea said, La Jolla paid nearly $48 million of the nearly $439 million in property taxes in the general fund, or 10.93 percent.

When La Jolla’s share of sales tax revenue to the general fund is included (3 percent of the total in 2017 and 2 percent in 2021), the community’s overall share of property and sales taxes was 7.4 percent in 2017 and 7.3 percent in 2021, according to the figures Ysea provided.

Those numbers don’t include transient occupancy taxes or other fees.

Property and sales tax figures from the city of San Diego
These figures from the city of San Diego show the property and sales tax revenue for the city’s general fund in the 2017 and 2021 fiscal years and the amounts and percentages coming from La Jolla’s 92037 ZIP code.
(City of San Diego)

Kane, also a Village Visioning Committee member, said older communities and communities of concern should both be invested in.

“The stereotype that [La Jolla] is older, white and richer is true, but our infrastructure is still in [a] bad place because the city has been using us as a cash cow,” she said. “We pay taxes, too, and we should get our fair share. But the meaning of fair share is up for debate. We’re trying to keep everything equitable and level the playing field as best we can.”

POLL: Where should La Jolla stand among San Diego’s priorities for road repairs? Vote here.

Santacroce said the city “will continue to request and consider recommendations from council District 1 and La Jolla community members on what streets should be prioritized for repair.”

Along with “Sexy Streets,” he added, the city Transportation Department’s regular paving program will continue to examine the prioritization factors such as pavement and overall conditions, traffic and maintenance history as criteria for selecting streets for improvement, both in La Jolla and citywide.

What became of Proposition H?

Local resident Andrew Shorenstein noted in an email to the La Jolla Light this month that “several years ago we passed Proposition H, which was supposed to allocate money to repair our streets. ... What happened to our tax money that was supposed to solve this problem?”

Proposition H, dubbed “Rebuild San Diego,” was a city ballot measure approved by 65 percent of voters in June 2016 to amend the city charter to require that certain general fund revenue be deposited in an Infrastructure Fund exclusively for capital improvements, including streets, sidewalks, bridges, bike paths and more.

Prop. H was not a tax increase but instead, city officials would allocate infrastructure funding from existing sources. The measure’s supporters, including many city leaders and business groups, said it would ensure proper prioritization of infrastructure improvements and maintenance. They expected that $3 billion to $4 billion in revenue growth and pension cost savings would fund infrastructure improvements over 25 years.

But revenue growth fell far short of estimates, largely because higher-than-predicted inflation rates and a shift to online sales had a big impact on sales tax revenue, a city fiscal analyst told Inewsource in 2019. Also, the projected pension savings didn’t materialize.

Then in June last year, the City Council voted 8-1 to override the infrastructure funding policy so it could have $20 million more to spend on other priorities. Overriding it required at least six of the council’s nine votes.

Coming in Part 5: A look at how communities similar to La Jolla paved — or detoured from — the road to repair.