Repairing Our Roads

“When we got into office, the thing that surprised me most was to find that things were just as bad as we’d been saying they were.”

-President John F. Kennedy

I started my term as mayor 20 months ago confronting a monstrously large and growing unfunded maintenance backlog — more than $521 million for our streets and roads alone — without any obvious source of funding to address those needs. I told one radio station that absent winning the lottery, “We’ll repurpose the potholes as ‘traffic calming devices.’”

News of these funding shortages doesn’t surprise anyone. A decade of budgetary shortfalls and severe cuts from the State of California have conspired to leave us with roads in serious need of repair.

While the cost appears daunting, we must tackle this expensive challenge immediately. Why the urgency?

First, because poor roads affect us all. For example, a typical San José driver incurs about $863 in additional expenses annually in the form of poorer fuel mileage efficiency, blown tires, bent rims and greater wear-and-tear on the vehicle as a result of bad roads. Keep in mind that the problem isn’t confined to those who own a car; 100% of our bike and bus trips rely on the same roads as our cars — and to cyclists like me, poor streets pose a serious safety risk.

Second, the cost of doing nothing greatly exceeds the cost of fixing the road. Transportation experts say that investing $1 in our roads today — such as for resealing or modest repairs — will save more than $5 in the future, by avoiding the costly replacement of failed streets. The cost of doing nothing is stark: Our $521 million repair backlog would grow to $880 million by 2020 if we merely continue the funding patterns of the last decade.

Making matters worse, state cuts in gas tax funding and other funding reductions have slashed the amount of road repair money available to the City of San José in half. As a result, we started this year with only $13 million in ongoing funding to maintain our roads — even though restoring our streets to a state of good repair will require just over $100 million every year for the next decade. That’s left us with the task of finding funding to fill this enormous gap.

Are there alternatives to simply spending more money? To be sure, we have implemented more cost-effective methods of restoring road pavement, such as cold-in-place pavement recycling and repair. We can always cut other city expenditures — such as police or libraries — but that comes at a great cost to our community, particularly after a decade in which we saw services cut year-after-year and our workforce shrink by almost one-third. And of course, we continue to seek ways to control costs, such as by securing the savings of pension reform through Measure F this November.

At the end of the day, though, there is no short-cut. There’s no “app” to fix a road. It simply costs money to address, and it costs even more money if we ignore it.

This year, we have taken several approaches to tackle this funding gap. First, I introduced — and the City Council approved — a budget that halted new spending in order to focus our scarce dollars on “fix-it-first” strategies for long-overdue infrastructure upgrades. Next, following voter approval of a sales tax increase in June, we committed more than half of the funding — about $17 million — to street repair and paving (the rest of the dollars went to public safety and to rapid rehousing of the homeless). I’ve also joined Sen. Jim Beall in advocating for a bill that he introduced in the State Legislature to restore state investment in local roads and highways.

These efforts would help improve that funding level, but there is an opportunity to substantially boost road funding even further via Measure B, the countywide traffic relief and road repair measure, which will appear on your November ballot. I strongly encourage you to become familiar with Measure B.

Regardless of your position on this or any other measure, the most direct and impactful way of addressing many of our biggest local challenges — including roads, traffic, housing, and restoring police staffing — is to vote on Nov. 8. Please make sure you take the time to participate in our democratic process and ensure your voice is heard. 

Sign up to receive future messages from Sam in your inbox.