How to pay for our future – Part I

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October 28, 2013 by Omar Passons

This image came from a fine illustrator named John Royle, I hope he doesn't mind that I used it.

This image came from a fine illustrator named John Royle, I hope he doesn’t mind that I used it.

By now, it is hard to live in the City of San Diego without having heard that there is at least a $1 Billion backlog of fixes or replacements to the buildings and other things we own as a city.  There are many reasons $1 Billion is probably less than half the actual amount, but that’s a post for another day.  The purpose of this post is to talk about how to pay for all that stuff.  And to be clear, when I say pay for all that stuff, I mean ALL OF IT, not just building or replacing it but maintaining it once it’s operating. Yes, I realize that you don’t buy a house with all cash because it is usually better to spread the payment on your 30-year asset over a long time and the same thing applies to things like bridges. So I don’t mean to say we should pay for everything tomorrow, but a plan–and a reason for that plan–would be great.

Before I can lay out what the options might be, it is useful to make a couple observations.  First, I’ve skipped the step of addressing whether we should fix or repair all this stuff.  Seriously, that might seem like a strange point, but there is nothing that says we have to fix everything or that we have no choice but to build a bunch of new stuff.   We are so far behind we sometimes forget to ask the question whether we should fix these things at all or just knock them down and put up some low-maintenance drought tolerant landscaping instead.  This brings us to point number two.

Second, if we really are going to build and replace a bunch of stuff, we ought to have some coherent reason for making choices.  The list of projects every community wants is kind of like one of those photos where the road just seems to go on forever – there is no end in sight. A road like the one pictured below from artist Lorenzo Cesaro of north Jersey (his cool site here):

Found this using the magic of Google. I heart the Interwebs--and the Dark Matter Blog where I found this

Found this using the magic of Google. I heart the Interwebs–and the Dark Matter Blog where I found this

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for putting cycle tracks throughout North Park and South Park to make bike riding safer and putting improvements that make it easier to walk in City Heights or fixing our beaches or any of 100 other things, but at some point, we’ll decide as a city that we ought to figure out what we want our future as a city to look like, and then we can ask a bunch of engineers and planning types to tell us what that might cost.  For now,  the only attempt we seem to be making as a City is through the Climate Action Plan.  Yeah, you read that right.  And yeah, it might seem a little strange at first.  That last link is to this whole page of details where you can read the whole plan.  The reason I say the Climate Action Plan is the only attempt at having a long-term strategy is because it is the only document I can find in the entire City of San Diego that says “here’s where we are trying to get as a region now let’s figure out what we need to build or replace to get there.”

I know, it sounds terribly simple and so obvious that you can’t believe there aren’t a slew of documents or policies out there competing with this Action Plan to lay out where we should go as a city.  The short version of the Plan’s thesis is that Global Warming is not a hoax, there are state and federal laws related to reducing greenhouse gases (what’s a greenhouse gas, anyway?), so we ought to design our future city in a way that moves us towards reducing those gases and protecting our environment.  And the benefit of that strategy is that things like replacing transit systems and adding electric vehicle charging stations and bike lanes and putting people’s jobs close to where they live all follow neatly from implementing this Action Plan.  It may be a perfectly reasonable way to approach this issue.

Using the Action Plan is one approach to framing the “what do we want to be when we grow up” question, but it’s not the only option.  There is nothing stopping the Urban Land Institute or the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation or the Concerned Citizens of San Diego Neighborhoods United (a group I totally just made up) from creating their own high-level policy for what the future layout of the city or the region ought to look like.  To be fair, the San Diego Foundation did release Our Greater San Diego Vision, but although that is very worth reading, it doesn’t seem designed to address the more technical question of how to set out infrastructure priorities within the City of San Diego.  The Action Plan uses reducing greenhouse gas as the ultimate driver, but we could just as easily use any of the following:

  • Make the improvements that would attract the most jobs that pay San Diego’s median income or more; or
  • Make the improvements that ensure every San Diego community has a minimum quality of streets, buildings, street lights and quality parks; or
  • Make the improvements that have the strongest impact on getting commerce into and out of the San Diego region most efficiently

As it stands, nobody else appears to have taken on this “what do we want to be” question in a detailed way so I don’t want to belabor the point.  I hope, actually, that if any of my friends at other groups around town have put figurative pen to paper that they’ll share and I’ll analyze those plans.

[Interesting side note: The communities in downtown recently released their Imagine Downtown 20-year vision.  It is by far and away the closest thing anywhere else in San Diego to a meaningful document for driving what comes next in those communities.  In fact, I’d say it’s not even “close” it actually IS a document to do just that.  It doesn’t have all the detail for getting where they want to go, but it does say “we should go here” and then attempt to start charting a course to get there.  Who knew that Nicole Capretz (Action Plan) and Kris Michell (Imagine Downtown) would be the two people in San Diego really pushing for the comprehensive rationale I’ve been asking about for a few years now?!?  Maybe we ought to expedite getting even more women into greater positions of authority in this town.]

Now that I’ve taken a bit of time to lay out what this post is not about and described some of the important big picture questions, it’s perfectly appropriate to turn to what I’d hoped to spend most of my time on – how to pay for stuff.  Actually, this is longer than I originally intended the preface portion to be, so I’ll press pause for now and start in on the ‘t’ word (and bonds and efficiency and other such ways to find more money) next time.

[Update: since starting this post, Voice of San Diego writer Andrew Keatts told me that the Cleveland National Forest Foundation has a 50-10 plan (here) that might also be one of those “where do we want to be in 50 years” ideas.  I am wondering both why only environmental groups seem to think it’s important to come up with a rationale for how we build things and also what the Cleveland National Forest has to do with transit, but I’ll save that for another day and just be glad people are thinking about these things in the City of San Diego specifically.]

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