Column: Infrastructure: the good, the bad and the always expensive – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Last Sunday, two events occurred in San Diego that justifiably could be called spectacular — for very different reasons.

Both involved major infrastructure.

The new Blue Line trolley extension officially launched, turning a two-decade dream into a reality that comes with high expectations of being a game changer in how San Diegans move around and where they might live.

Thousands of people took advantage of the free promotional rides on a route that essentially parallels Interstate 5 between downtown San Diego and University City.

At $2.2 billion, it’s the largest infrastructure project in the city’s history.

Later that day, two aging water pipes burst, flooding downtown business and residential areas, and forcing the closure of northbound I-5 with water deep enough to submerge a car.

Thousands of people were diverted from their normal travel route through midweek, while some downtown residents lived off bottled and trucked-in water for a while.

It’s unclear how much the emergency fixes together with the long-term planned replacement of the pipes will cost. It won’t be cheap.

The contrast, and sometimes competition, between gleaming projects that promise to transform the future and the upgrade of nitty-gritty municipal facilities to keep life going as it has been is not new nor unique to San Diego.

But it’s rare that one day provides a juxtaposition that underscores the desires and need for infrastructure so succinctly.

Shiny objects like trolleys and expanded airports aren’t just nice things to have; they can bring a lot of economic and even social good to a region. It’s understandable that efforts to build them capture attention and generate enthusiasm in some quarters.

Old pipes and bridges often become public concerns only when they approach becoming — or have become — public safety hazards requiring triage action.

This is both human and political nature.

It’s not that the more mundane and necessary infrastructure — often below ground and out of sight — isn’t on the radar of people who make policy. But coming up with money to adequately maintain them is no easy task, and some ambitious efforts to do that have fallen by the wayside.

Discussions of going to voters with a big infrastructure bond or other type of borrowing package over the past decade never seemed to get too far.

Improving San Diego’s infrastructure has been a central theme during Todd Gloria’s tenure at City Hall, before as council president and interim mayor, and now as mayor elected last November. He seemed to make inroads in the public consciousness by promoting “sexy streets” — a push not just for basic road improvements, but to make roads more pedestrian, bike and transit friendly.

His latest budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars for “critical infrastructure,” including everything from sidewalks and parks to stormwater drains. Yet, the city over the next handful of years faces a growing gap of $3 billion between infrastructure needs and anticipated funding.

While recent infrastructure funding proposals never formally materialized, an initiative went ahead in March 2020 to raise hotel taxes primarily to expand the downtown convention center, while also funding road repairs and services for the homeless.

Measure C fell just short of approval, though a lawsuit is challenging that.

Trolleys, convention centers, road repairs and, more recently, homeless programs have more sizable constituencies than water pipes.

Another infrastructure plan that would increase levies on San Diegans currently is percolating and would heavily focus on stormwater projects aimed at reducing flooding and polluting waterways, while meeting enhanced state regulations.

But should something like that go before voters next year, it likely will have competition from a transportation sales-tax increase largely aimed at transit, among other possible local and state tax measures.

After the dual water pipe failures, Joshua Emerson Smith of The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote that one of the pipes, which created a large sinkhole at 11th Avenue and A Street, was 76 years old and made of cast iron. The other, made of reinforced concrete, later burst and sent water, rocks and other debris raining onto the northbound lanes of I-5.

Smith wrote that the city has replaced about 180 miles of older pipeline since 2013 and has some 55 miles of cast-iron pipe remaining, which should be upgraded by 2025. Replacement pipes will be made of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

He added the city had 33 water main breaks in 2020, down from a high of 131 in 2010, while averaging nearly 80 waterline breaks over the past decade.

At the federal level, most of the focus of the recently approved $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill has been on transportation and big items like ports along with a host of other things, including some not typically part of public works bills — such as expanding Internet access.

The bill does include $55 billion aimed at ensuring all Americans have access to clean water. The legislation will invest in water infrastructure and eliminate lead service pipes, including in tribal nations and disadvantaged communities that need it most, according to a White House fact sheet.

But transportation dominates infrastructure moves at all levels of government. While the Blue Line is viewed as a key connection with other trolley lines, further expansion of the system is on the horizon. A rail link to San Diego International Airport, a Purple Line from the border to Kearny Mesa and, eventually, high-speed rail are under consideration. Whether any of them will actually happen depends on the public’s willingness to raise their taxes.

Boosters of the Blue Line believe it will be transformative. There are plenty of doubters. In theory, it will give more people a convenient and efficient alternative to driving to work and elsewhere, while spurring housing clustered around trolley stations. If that comes to pass, the Blue Line could build support for similar concepts elsewhere in the region.

Meanwhile, the here-and-now consequences of aging water lines and the like that San Diegans will continue to experience could heighten awareness of the need for resources to improve them. Maybe.

Both are necessary infrastructure. One to facilitate a more mobile and environmentally sound long-term future, and the other to protect near-term quality of life.

Tweet of the Week

Goes to Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson), astrophysicist, in a reply to @elonmusk.

Musk: At least 50% of my tweets were made on a porcelain throne

deGrasse Tyson: That comes to more than 8,000 tweets over 12.5 years. If you do the math, it means you poop twice a day. Do you really want to tell people that?