Harbor Drive and the Coronado Bridge are shown in this photo from April 28, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

One of many pressing challenges facing San Diego’s next mayor will be the city’s growing infrastructure funding gap – likely to worsen due to the economic fallout tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

Whoever takes over for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican who is termed-out, will have a more than $2 billion backlog in repairs and maintenance for items such as sidewalks, roads, sewer pipes and buildings.

Why this matters

San Diego’s next mayor will take office in December, inheriting a massive backlog of roads, sidewalks and buildings that need repairs. COVID-19 has made fixing those problems even more challenging.

Facing off in the November election will be two Democrats – Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Councilmember Barbara Bry.

Gloria, a former two-term councilmember, finished first in the March primary with 41.5% of the vote. Bry, who is in her first City Council term, came in second with 22.9%, besting Republican Councilmember Scott Sherman by 1,189 votes.

We asked Bry and Gloria the same list of questions on infrastructure issues, with varying follow-up questions, during the week of April 27.

Below are the candidates’ answers in their own words. The interviews were edited for length and clarity. The responses are in alphabetical order by their names.

The city’s infrastructure funding gap is estimated at $2.16 billion. (That’s as of February, before the COVID-19 shutdowns and revenue drops.) If elected, how would you prioritize infrastructure needs given the new budget environment?

BRY: Infrastructure can be funded with capital money, and there are pockets of money available from the state and federal government for infrastructure, which aren’t available for the city’s operating budget. So first I’m going to look at those sources. And as you know, we’re in a very low interest rate environment. This is a very good time to be borrowing money. I’ve read recently that the state of California has billions of dollars of infrastructure money available from bond issues that were passed by voters in the last few years. I think it’s time to take advantage of bond money that’s already been issued that’s available and to make sure San Diego gets its fair share of this money so we can start addressing our infrastructure deficit.

GLORIA: I actually think infrastructure is sexy. I think it ought to be a priority. And I think particularly when we’re looking at what we can do to reignite our local economy, infrastructure can play a pivotal role and probably should, when you consider it certainly employs lots of people, and that relatively low interest rates and other funding opportunities may exist through federal and state stimulus to actually put infrastructure at the front of a recovery measure.

I was elected to the City Council during the Great Recession, and we had to figure out a way to balance the city’s budget and put San Diegans back to work. Now, this challenge is much larger than that one, but it’s not unfamiliar to me.

I think what we have to do is make sure that San Diego gets its fair share of any federal relief efforts and any state level relief efforts. As a state legislator, I feel perfectly capable and qualified to be able to do that and make sure that as we get that fair share of funding that we marry it with whatever local funds we may have to really stretch these dollars as far as possible.

What’s your vision for the city’s infrastructure plans over the next few years?

BRY: I chair the budget committee at the city of San Diego. What I’m focused on right now is this year’s budget, which starts July 1, and what’s going to go along with that. The city recently got $248 million from the federal government in federal stimulus money. I’m looking carefully at the guidelines for that money to make sure that we can continue providing core city services and what kinds of infrastructure projects might be appropriate with that sum of money.

It’s mostly looking at the federal money, which is literally sitting in our bank account right now, and how we can utilize it to maintain core city services. And to focus on small business assistance, to focus on universal internet access, which now we’ve seen more than ever is a necessity for everyone in San Diego. And it’s clear we have a digital divide, and this money can go a long way in helping to solve it.

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GLORIA: For the short term what we’re going to have to do is live within our means and recognize that lower revenue, both at the local level and at other levels potentially, will really impair our ability to get more infrastructure done.

Whatever we do get in the door, we have to be smart about. What we need to be doing is engaging at the local, state and national level to make sure that any kinds of requirements or rules that we’re living under — to the extent that we can get some flexibility, again the sort of permissiveness that I think this emergency really requires — may create a situation where we can perhaps take money from a project that’s not ready to go and put it toward one that can. I think a lot of the early part of the next mayor’s term is going to be spent doing the very best sort of triaging possible.

Going forward our vision for San Diego infrastructure has to be big. And that may seem difficult to hear right now when we’re just trying to survive. But ultimately a leader has to set a path and chart a course toward it.

How do you assess the funding cut decisions made by Mayor Kevin Faulconer in his proposed budget – and what specifics would you have handled differently?

BRY: First of all, this is not a time to be cutting city staff. This is not a time to be cutting library hours or park and recreation center hours. This is a time when our residents need these services the most when we’re allowed to open them. So I am thinking much more broadly about how we’re going to restructure the city, what kinds of middle management positions can be eliminated and how we can use the federal stimulus money to maintain core city services.

I would stop paying the rent on 101 Ash St. That’s about $6 million a year. I would stop spending any money on that. I would also step back and look at all of our real estate needs. We’ve seen that most of our city employees are working remotely and are being very productive. I really want to look at our real estate needs because we probably need a lot less space than we currently occupy.

GLORIA: I recognize the budget is a work in progress.

I think one of the mistakes that was made was the unilateral order to furlough city employees without meeting requirements under state law to meet and confer. I actually think the relationships with our employee bargaining units is where we can find significant savings to help balance the city’s budget and potentially take some of that savings and reinvest in infrastructure to help get our economy going again. I note that the mayor rescinded that furlough (order). That was the right thing to do.

I would mention that the city was facing a significant budget shortfall prior to this pandemic. What I would hope is that this mayor and City Council would not repeat that. A strong city budget is a foundation from which we can help grow the overall city economy and put businesses back in business, and put San Diegans back to work. That really starts with prudent fiscal budgeting that I hope will be a hallmark of this new city budget.

FOLLOW UP: Is the current proposed budget not a strong budget in your view?

GLORIA: It’s hard to say in part because there are so many moving parts. The budget was essentially reworked within a week because the revenue forecast was off by $50 million. That’s unheard of. So I think that we have to provide some grace and understanding of the situation the mayor is under.

What I’d hope is that what gets ultimately adopted by the City Council is a responsible budget that is structurally sound and that has an eye on the horizon. Because this is not going to be forever. I want San Diego to have hope.

Faulconer has prioritized fixing streets during his administration. Given the new budget reality, would you maintain his pace of repairs going forward?

BRY: We have certain pockets of money that can only be used for infrastructure. So, of course, that’s what we’ll continue to do. I want to look at new technologies for how we can do a better job when we go in and fill potholes, for how we can do a better job when we resurface our streets. Our residents often see that we complete a project and six months to a year later the street is in disrepair again. That is not acceptable.

FOLLOW UP: What about in terms of specific numbers?

BRY: Whatever we do, I want to make sure we do it in a quality way, in a way that lasts. That’s what’s most important. I will add something else. There have been communities in the city that have not gotten a fair share of infrastructure investment, and it’s not that every community should get the same amount of money. If some communities have infrastructure needs that are more important, I think their needs should be prioritized.

I want to look at overall road condition, which we do look at, but it’s questionable whether the overall condition index numbers (for streets) that we get are accurate. I want to make sure that communities that haven’t gotten their fair share of money in the past get their streets repaired.

GLORIA: If you ask any San Diegan, they are unhappy with our current condition of our roads. It sort of undercuts the argument of the current administration that they have made a transformational change on the condition of our roads. So I would not look to extend the status quo. I’d hope to do better. One of the areas that I would hope to do better is to actually utilize all the funding that the state of California is sending to the city for road repair. I fought a very difficult battle to make sure that we had enough road repair money in the form of our gas tax coming to our cities. It distresses me to see that at least a good chunk of it is not utilized.

I recognize that the quality and condition of our roads is a quality of life issue for San Diego.

The next mayor has to say it’s a priority, has to show that they’ve meant that in the past, and are willing to take every resource possible and put it toward the repair of our roads because our economy counts on it.

In Faulconer’s budget proposal, money from a 2016 ballot measure called Rebuild San Diego is being used to help cover the city’s COVID-19 funding gap. Is that a decision you support?

BRY: It will require six votes of the City Council to overturn that. My goal is to look other places before taking money away from infrastructure. We all drive on the streets or take public transportation on the streets or ride our bikes on the streets or cross the street. This is something that is really important to every resident, and it’s something they count on local government to get right.

FOLLOW UP: So it won’t get your vote?

BRY: I don’t know. I need to look. I’m going to look holistically at the budget. At this point, it’s my goal to maintain core city services at a time our residents need it most. And to keep our employees on the job at a time we are encouraging private sector employers to keep their workers on the job.

Road work in San Diego’s Grant Hill neighborhood is shown on April 28, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

There are a lot of unknowns that are going to become more known in the next few weeks and few months, particularly whether we will be eligible for even more stimulus funding from the federal government.

GLORIA: I think that’s a reasonable step given the circumstances that we’re in.

I was pretty aggressive (when I was on the City Council) in making sure we were pushing as much money as we could into reserves. We created multiple reserves. I also support in drawing down on those. We did that with the expectation that someday we would hit a rainy day, and I don’t think any of us would have predicted it would be a pandemic like COVID-19. But we were planning for a day when we needed flexibility, when we needed additional resources. Flexibility that I think is responsible right now.

Who are you talking to right now and getting input from when it comes to infrastructure?

BRY: I’m talking to residents all over the city. My life now is a series of Zoom meetings, and so I’m talking to residents all over the city as well as city staff. I have a whole group of people who advise me informally.

GLORIA: I had a meeting with SANDAG earlier today (April 27). I’m talking regularly with the California Department of Transportation. At the local level, I have always respected the work of Circulate San Diego. I think they do some fantastic public policy, white papers that would definitely help influence what my administration would like to propose to the City Council for their consideration. And then I’m really excited by the leadership at MTS.

Mary Plummer is a former editor and investigative reporter for inewsource. Her reporting has ranged from major breaking news, such as covering some of California’s deadliest wildfires and mass shootings, to intensive beat reporting. Her investigations have uncovered failings in the state prison system...