San Diego infrastructure – the “chained runner” problem


February 14, 2013 by Omar Passons

It is much harder to run a race with a large ball and chain attached. What does this mean?

It is much harder to run a race with a large ball and chain attached. What does this mean?

I found this photo above at Media Marathoning. It sets the stage for an important question about the City of San Diego infrastructure work plan released by Councilmember Mark Kersey’s office.  I wrote an initial post about this work plan here. To be clear, I think it’s a very good plan and, when implemented, it will go further than any previous effort to address the structural problem in how the city prioritizes and builds/repairs things.  But this is a post about one important area the plan doesn’t cover: catching up.Imagine two runners, of equal potential and skill, standing at the starting line of a 1-mile race. We’ll call the runners Neil and Sam.  Neil’s a little younger, in pretty good shape and has been getting regular treatment from a team of exercise gurus.  Sam is a little older, also in decent shape, but hasn’t had the exercise staff for treatment in the last few years. They are in the starting blocks, ready to start the race, and just before the gun sounds, you notice that Sam has a ball and chain like the one above shackled to his leg. *Pow* The gun sounds and Neil takes off at a nice brisk pace.  Sam, however, is still stuck because of that ball and chain.  After about a minute a guy runs over, unlocks the ball and chain from Sam’s leg so that he and Neil are now competing with the same standards, and tells him he can start running.  Assuming the two men are of comparable speed, will Sam ever catch Neil?

Replace Sam with a community like Linda Vista and Neil with one like 4S Ranch.  And replace the ball and chain around Sam’s leg with years of neglect or under-investment.  I have not analyzed our city’s data to determine whether there has been more neglect in certain parts of San Diego than others.  And I’m not making a point about equal distribution, I’m examining how to ensure that each community can provide the maximum opportunity for its residents and to help our city overall.  But we could probably agree that just like Sam would never catch Neil without some extra help, Linda Vista won’t catch 4S Ranch in my example even if a new process is implemented that standardizes infrastructure prioritization unless something extra is done.

What does this have to do with the infrastructure workplan?  Well, the plan sets out a path to understanding the condition of our various public property, a way to answer the question of what condition we want our property to be in and even a mechanism for professional and community-based input about how the prioritization of both projects and needs will happen. (aside: a “project” in this sense is one that has already been identified for some type of fix, a “need” is some deficiency for which a fix has not necessarily been identified)

To explain the point, let’s say all public property is either “good” “fair” or “poor.” We won’t worry about how to define those right now.  Now let’s assume for the sake of the point that the whole city has 100 “poor” condition buildings.  For this made-up example, eight of the Council Districts have five “poor” condition buildings and the other 60 “poor” condition buildings are in the ninth District.  If our new prioritization system indicates that we will take care of all “poor” condition buildings first, with each District getting equal attention to its “poor” conditions, two things will happen.  One, it will be a technically fair system that is no longer subject to insiders getting benefits because of political connections or savvy.  Two, the District with 60 “poor” condition buildings won’t ever get on equal footing with the others.  You end up with an apparently fair process that, in practice, stunts the potential growth of that last District.

It’s possible the solution is to add a filter of prioritization based on Council District level need (or neighborhood level or block level).  That way in addition to looking at the raw number of buildings city-wide there is some look at community-wide conditions.  Another solution might be to have an entirely separate track for “high priority” target areas that we choose as a city to focus additional attention on during some catch up phase.  What we choose to do may depend on whether we think the best vision for our city is to fund improvements based on:

  1. likely impact on economic growth; or
  2. a baseline standard of physical safety; or
  3. a split approach that enhances walkability in communities that desire that and drivability in communities with that preference; or
  4. some other alternative

Whatever we choose, one consideration that likely shouldn’t be left behind is how to evaluate the relative health of public property across the city and how our choice to prioritize will impact any gaps in that health from one community to the next. Thanks for dropping by.

2 thoughts on “San Diego infrastructure – the “chained runner” problem

  1. Shouldn’t we base infrastructure priorities on projects that will provide the highest return on the money spent? If we maximize return on investment, then city coffers will grow and everyone will eventually benefit.

    • Omar Passons says:

      Walter this is one option, but by no means is it the only option. We could decide as a City that the best way to prioritize is to focus on the investments that create a qualifying level of health and public safety for all neighborhoods. If the research suggests that this will free up more people to be productive and to learn in school and so forth, it might be a net gain that far outstrips short term General Fund growth. Similarly, Nicole Capretz is working on a Climate Action Plan and we might take the position that investments that reduce Greenhouse Gases is the best option because it is better for the long term health of the community and gets us more quickly in compliance with state law. Or we could take the position that we should prioritize those investments that bring those most livable wage jobs to San Diego region. All of these are reasonable options for a strategic decision-making framework. What I am hoping to push for at the moment is simply a very open, very PUBLIC discussion, both at City Council and–much more importantly–in the print and TV and Internet media to get more regular San Diegans aware of the magnitude of this discussion and being involved.

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