City street-repair funding keeps finding potholes

For all those reporters and editors who have been crying about the lack of face time with the mayor of San Francisco, here’s a guaranteed way to grab his attention.

Write about the streets and how they’re crumbling like stale cookies. Give him a Top 10 list of your favorite potholes.

Then you’ll get an earful, a long lecture accompanied by a mountain of statistics. And he’ll challenge you to get the facts right. But you won’t leave wanting for more because nothing causes Mayor Gavin Newsom to mutter to himself and those around him quite like the state of the streets in San Francisco.

The reasons for this are many and complicated, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll whittle them down to an essential formula: Mayors past and present have discovered that the only way to keep the streets clean is out of their control — it’s a little thing called rain, which reduces human traffic and the debris that comes with it, and washes it away in flowing streams.

And San Francisco’s mayors quickly come to realize that the only way to fix and maintain streets is also out of their control — it’s a little thing called money, or that particular pool of funding that historically gets spent elsewhere.

You may have seen one of the placards sometime, the one that reads “People not Potholes.”

“It drives me crazy,” Newsom told me. “I hate what I see on the streets.”

What he sees is the result of years of neglect by The City in funding and caring for our asphalt jungle, an annual problem that would cost The City close to $500 million in one-time spending to address. And it’s hardly a surprise that San Francisco, which seemingly has been running a $500 million budget deficit for years, can never seem to address the solution.

If only the streets voted. Boy, would they give us a piece of their mind.

Such is the mayor’s quandary. He just got his first gift of the holiday season: Word from the City Controller’s Office that the deficit is worse than imagined due to a huge decline in tax revenues and that there are no easy fixes because they were all used up last spring. And now that they’re zeroing in on the budget, Newsom knows that street improvements will get short shrift, because they always do.

When Newsom took office, The City was spending just $12 million annually on street maintenance. He bumped that figure up to $48 million in his second year, and this fiscal year The City will allocate about $42 million. But it’s never quite enough. Street repair has become San Francisco’s Sisyphean riddle. The City has a $6.6 billion budget, but it doesn’t have enough money to properly fix its streets.

Three years ago the Department of Public Works reported that The City had a $340 million backlog in street maintenance and that half of the pavement in San Francisco needed repair — some 6,500 of nearly 13,000 blocks. Street re-pavement efforts have nearly doubled in the ensuing years — 320 blocks will be repaired this fiscal year and 347 blocks in 2010-11.

But as the numbers reveal, we’re still just chipping away at a huge problem.

“Every year we slip behind; you reach a point where you can never catch up,” Newsom said.

That’s why he floated the idea of a street maintenance bond earlier this year, a proposed $368 million whopper designed to give our streets and sidewalks a quick one-time fix. I opposed the bond, based on the argument that as city taxpayers, we’re supposed to get basic government services like parks, libraries and clean streets in return for our tax dollars.

Bonds are the equivalent of double-dipping by elected officials who don’t seem to realize that San Francisco can’t afford every public health, social service and affordable housing program that comes down the pike. But they don’t listen, which is why the streets get no shelter from the storms. The debate is always framed as people versus potholes, but last I looked, those potholes represent the people in a very real and tooth-jarring way. And that’s the reason the bond idea died due to lack of support.

Newsom knows that and historically the polls back him up, but that doesn’t translate into funding, especially in poor economic times. So when the complaints fly in, Newsom finds himself shaking his head.

“The pressures on the streets widen even more in deficit periods,” he said. “We’ll be looking at whatever creative funding strategies are out there.”

Only one thing is certain with the looming battles over the budget: City residents are going to be in for a bumpy ride.

You can ask yourself what drives priorities at City Hall — when you head in for your next wheel alignment.

Ken Garcia appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Examiner. Check out his blog at or e-mail him at

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