Repair Bond Will Improve Streets But Doesn’t Solve Underlying Problem

Fixing streets more frequently keeps them in better shape and saves money in the long run. Source: San Francisco Department of Public Works

Last week San Francisco voters approved a $248 million bond to fix streets, which means the city will soon begin the largest repaving expenditure in its history. For the next three years, San Francisco will spend more than three times the amount it has normally budgeted for street repairs. Ninety million dollars will go to bicycle, pedestrian, transit, and infrastructure improvements (we’ll have more on those projects next week).

“There’s a lot of pride from folks in the bike coalition in getting this passed,” said Kit Hodge, deputy director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. SFBC helped draft the proposition, went door to door, and sent out 42,000 mailers on the issue. This support may have been crucial: The proposition exceeded the required two-thirds majority by just under 3,000 votes.

The bond can only do so much, however. It pays for only three years of work and is insufficient to complete the backlog of repaving projects. “This won’t totally fix all the deferred maintenance,” said Department of Public Works spokesperson Gloria Chan. “We still need to find a permanent funding source.”

The problem is that San Francisco has neglected its streets, failing to pay for preventive care since the early 1990’s. Putting things off until later — deferred maintenance — comes at a steep price. It’s actually cheaper to do maintenance more often and keep roads smooth. Engineers have estimated that it costs about three times as much to let streets deteriorate to a broken-down, pothole-scarred state.

Maintaining streets is one of those basic good-government policies that pretty much everyone agrees with. But it’s not sexy. Slurry seals never won fame for a politician. And so far, no one has stepped up to make a permanent solution to this problem.

While the bond is expected to pay for new bike and pedestrian infrastructure in addition to general maintenance, not every livable streets advocate supported the measure. Livable City director Tom Radulovich told Streetsblog in July that a better funding mechanism would reflect the costs that different people impose by using the streets: “As a driver, you’re not going to pay any more to drive, but as a non-driver I’m going to pay more for automobile infrastructure. We’re sending the wrong economic signals by continually hiding the true cost of motoring from drivers.”

San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd voted against sending the measure to the ballot and thinks the city shouldn’t make a habit of borrowing to pay for road upkeep. “We’re going to get $248 million of work, but we’re going to pay over $400 million because of the interest,” he said.

Even Supervisor Scott Wiener, a strong supporter of the roads bond, said that debt financing shouldn’t be a permanent solution. “We’d deferred so much maintenance that this has become a capital expense, and a bond is appropriate for that,” he said. But he thinks that it’s neither rational to use debt to pay for routine maintenance or to ignore the problem. “I think there’s pretty much unanimous agreement that the status quo is unacceptable,” he said.

Much like Radulovich, Weiner believes that the best solution would be for the users of city roads to pay for their upkeep. He’s hoping that State Senator Mark Leno will write a law to enable San Francisco to charge residents a vehicle license fee. This year Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that did just that, explaining that he wanted a solution for the whole state, not individual municipalities, but the governor may be warming to the idea, Elsbernd said.

“Maybe Brown’s recognized that the Republicans just aren’t interested in compromise,” he said.

There’s also a chance that the nine Bay Area counties will institute a gas tax, which, if passed, could help pay for street maintenance.

  • Wu

    Doesn’t the city has a $6 billion annual budget? Where does all that money go? Why is nothing left for road repairs???

  • Any vehicle license fee should be based on at least the square of the vehicle’s weight.  (The damage a vehicle does to a road is proportional to the fourth power of its weight, but at least taking the square would come a lot closer to fairness.) I’m not sure what an appropriate tax rate would be, but say it’s 2/1000ths of a cent ($.00002) per squared pound of vehicle. So, a 300lb scooter would pay $1.80 cents per year, a 3000lb Prius would pay $180/year, and a 5000lb SUV would pay $500. On this scale, a 30lb bicycle should pitch in just about 2 cents.

    But when it comes down to it, what would be fairest would be a state VMT that captured how far a vehicle went on any given road and then assessed a tax and gave the money to whichever jurisdiction was responsible for repairing that road. (i.e. for a county road the tax paid should go to the county involved, for a city street, it would go to that city, etc.)  Such a VMT should of course also be based on at least the square of the vehicle’s weight.  A VMT with the necessary GPS unit would be invasive and somewhat technologically complex, but it would capture people driving long miles to work through various jurisdictions, and, if used for freight, would make the better economics of rail freight apparent quite quickly.

  • Anonymous

    There should be a floor of around $50. It would cost more to collect a $1.80 annual license fee than it would bring in.

  • beth

    $248 million of repaving for $400 million? It’s so easy to mark “yes” in the voting booth for all these great bond measures without appreciating how costly they end up being. I was shocked to hear that the city has to finance what seems like the most basic service in this way. It’s definitely not sustainable, but I’m super psyched about more bike lanes.

  • mikesonn

    About 440,000 registered vehicles in SF. At $50per we are talking $22 million in added revenue. But I agree with Karen, it should be tied to the vehicle’s weight so that number could be much much higher.

  • Anonymous

    I have stated many times that it is ridiculous that we keep taking loans out to pay for things we want, especially things which are essential and which have a known cost for which we can plan (like road maintenance). Now we are paying twice as much (thanks to interest) to fix our roads. If we want better roads, then taxes on drivers need to go up. Otherwise, we need to be happy with poor-quality roads. I’m tired of people complaining about the roads but then not wanting to pony up to pay for them; you can’t have it both ways. Motorists have gotten a free ride for way too long, and it’s time they reap the seeds they have sown and start paying for the ridiculously expensive and over-developed infrastructure they alone have created (and at the expense of all other more efficient, cheaper, and more healthy forms of transit).

  • Past city government administrations managed to take care of our streets without costly bond measures. The difference now: City Hall is spending a lot more now on employees and it’s squandering a lot of money on dumb projects like the Central Subway, which will cost the city more than $200 million in scarce transportation revenue.

    The city now collects more than $180 million from its parking lots, parking tickets, and parking meters. The SFCTA takes in another $70-$80 million in sales taxes for transportation projects. That should be enough to pave our streets.

  • Think how much fun it would be to collect the 2 cents from the cyclists!  Once a year the city could put out huge Salvation Army-style kettles on main bicycle corridors (Market, Valencia, Panhandle) and bicyclists could throw their pennies in as they whiz by.

  • Aaron Bialick

    For anyone who hasn’t seen it already, Copenhagenize did a compelling analysis that demonstrates why people should be getting paid to cycle, not the other way around.

  • JK

    As a cyclist, a pedestrian, and a driver, I’ve long lamented the sorry state of SF’s streets. It’s not exactly satisfying to now be driving headlong into the gaping pothole of debt….

  • Sailpuff

    Why should there be a bond for this? If refurbishing needs to be an ongoing activity shouldn’t it be a budgeted expense like running the courts , the police and water lines?
    Maybe there’s a way to defer pensions.

  • Aaron

    Even cars are a marginal problem.  The issue is trucks.  An eighteen-wheeler weighs something like 20,000 lbs unloaded.  It is doing 2,000x the damage to the road a car is. While only around 1% of vehicles on the road are those, they are doing 95+% of the damage.

    Which is why the worse roads in SF are in the industrial parts.

  • Aaron, I agree that if trucks paid for their true proportion of the road damage they inflict (especially the heaviest ones) we would come to see the benefits of rail freight very quickly. When I worked in manufacturing in the 80’s a large portion of materials were still being delivered by rail although trucking was taking over in order to create just-in-time manufacturing and inventory systems. Though there is value to just-in-time systems, if it is achieved by hidden subsidies, much of the value is pretend. Ideally in the city freight would be delivered to a central point by rail and then mostly small (electric?) trucks would deliver it to end point destinations.

    The damage heavy freight trucks do to our city streets is also true of cement trucks, garbage trucks and city buses. While requiring these vehicles to pay the cost of their road damage would increase the cost of the goods and services these heavy vehicles provide, subsidizing them makes us make suboptimal choices. If the cost of road damage were factored in correctly, I wonder if we would have more light rail lines versus bus routes. I’m pretty sure we would be less likely to wildly oversize buses (like we currently do on the 35 line.)  Smaller trucks that require more loads and more drivers (and more jobs) may turn out more economical than larger trucks/buses with a single driver. But if we subsidize our streets so that all users are equivalent, there’s no reason not to drive the heaviest load possible and shred the expensive pavement with impunity, confident that the taxpayers will foot the repair bill.


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