S.F. politicians usually view potholes as bumps in the road

They have a way of coming up in conversation at bars and parties, probably because people have encountered them so often along the way.

Yet they have been so casually ignored by most politicians you would think they didn’t count. But just wait until election time.

For slowly rising to the top of public opinion polls on issues near and dear to San Franciscans is not public transportation or homelessness, but the jagged road breaks that play havoc with cars, bicycles and create a near-death experience for skateboarders. Yes — potholes.

If I had a dollar for every time someone comes up to me at a public event to discuss potholes, I would be much more able to afford the $500 my mechanic says it will cost me to replace the front shocks on my car. And like so many other city residents, I would like to forward the bill onto the esteemed members of the Board of Supervisors who, with a fewnotable exceptions, spend more time decrying the elections in Mexico than they do on fixing the streets.

But those bumps in the road are occupying a lot of people’s minds these days as evidenced by recent public and private surveys which show that the most basic government service — where tire meets pavement — has become a hot commodity. When I asked Mayor Gavin Newsom last week which issue was rising up the charts, he said the p-word so quickly it was like he was standing in one of the gaping asphalt cracks.

“It’s something I’m am acutely aware of and committed to fixing,” he said. “But it’s not something that you can snap your fingers at and expect it to change overnight. It’s important to realize that we had seven years of budget deficits and with the loss of state funding, we’ve barely been able to keep up with some basic needs.”

While almost every occurrence in the past year has been linked to global warming, the fierce weather encountered in these parts has exposed The City’s chronically underfunded street maintenance program for all to see. The San Francisco Department of Public Works has reported that half of the pavement in The City needs repairs, some 6,500 of nearly 13,000 blocks. The agency estimates that San Francisco has a $340 million backlog in basic street maintenance.

The City’s budget for street repairs has reflected that reality. When Newsom took office, San Francisco was spending $12 million annually, a figure he bumped up to $48 million his first year and $63 million in his second.

“And it’s still not enough,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of work done this year but we’re really looking at a five- to 10-year plan.”

It’s clear that Newsom remembers Willie Brown’s pledge to fix Muni in 100 days. Talk about managing expectations.

Yet even though it’s not a “mega-issue” like Muni, according to pollster David Binder, it’s clearly become the focus of much talkin the town.

“It’s not the first issue on people’s minds, but it’s definitely getting noticed,” Binder told me. “It one of those day-to-day things where people expect city government to keep the streets clean and driveable.”

Instead, we’re seeing streets that resemble portions of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Newsom said part of the problem is that when agencies like the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. rip up the streets, they just patch them back up when their work is done, leading to rapid deterioration in inclement weather. And with so much construction going on around town, it’s pretty easy to see why the streets can revert so quickly to what one city officials termed “primitive conditions.”

One hates to make a mountain out of a pothole, but those people running for supervisor this fall could probably use it as a campaign issue even if it’s not as controversial as, say, closing the roads in Golden Gate Park on weekends. But there is a shared audience in that bike and skate advocates are just as loud on the pothole issue as car drivers.

“I see it as a positive step in that, for a change, we’re doing nothing to exacerbate the problem,” said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who has been a champion of funding basic government services. “This is the first time in 20 years that we’ll meet the actual funding need, but now we have to make sure that we do this every year. We have to get more policymakers motivated to do something.”

There’s another election coming in November. I know if I were a public official, that would definitely be motivation enough.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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