Examiner Editorial: Short-changed SF streets at breaking point

By national engineering standards, San Francisco’s official Pavement Condition Index rating is 64 out of 85. Our streets are so worn out that only prompt repairs can “prevent rapid deterioration” that would cost “five to 10 times more than routine maintenance,” as The City has been shirking this responsibility for decades.

Because our pothole-riddled streets “are at an especially critical stage,” consistent funding during the next few years is absolutely necessary. Just to keep the streets from getting any worse than a 64 will require a quarter-billion dollars in the next decade, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission said.

But even that $250 million would not greatly improve The City’s overall street conditions. It will merely “keep the average poor street conditions from deteriorating further,” Department of Public Works Director Ed Reiskin told Mayor Gavin Newsom in a September memo.

This couldn’t possibly be a worse time for San Francisco to attempt to play catch-up on a problem created mostly by City Hall’s historic short-changing of basic infrastructure needs. San Francisco painfully balanced a $500 million deficit this fiscal year, and another $53 million in necessary midyear cuts is already being sought. A deficit of $350 million is predicted for next fiscal year.

Our deteriorating streets are a textbook example of why long-term deferred maintenance — though a tempting political expedient — is always a terrible idea. Sooner or later, it wastes much more taxpayer money than delayed spending for necessary upkeep and minor repairs saved.

Giving credit where it’s due, city officials like Newsom and Supervisor Sean Elsbernd did attempt to make infrastructure maintenance a top priority while the economy was growing. A larger percentage of the general fund was allocated for a citywide street repair plan, and aggressive borrowing increased the money available. However, much of the funding also depended on federal and state grants, which became less available when the economy turned.

Now, The City hopes to somehow generate enough additional revenue to at least keep the streets from worsening. One proposal would ask voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax increase to generate up to $36 million annually. But that seems like a particularly unfair pipe dream when local unemployment is around 9.7 percent.

The other option being floated is asking voters to approve a budget set-aside of up to $40 million annually. Since San Francisco’s discretionary budgeting has long been hamstrung by the unintended consequences of too many well-intentioned set-asides, The Examiner is not enthusiastic about this approach.

However, keeping The City’s streets in good condition is such a basic government function — and so easy to neglect — that we may go along with a reasonable set-aside this time.

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