San Diego infrastructure projects could be faster and cheaper with proposed reforms

San Diego’s spending on infrastructure projects is on the rise and expected to keep rising.
San Diego’s spending on infrastructure projects is on the rise and expected to keep rising.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Cost thresholds requiring City Council approval would be raised as the city enters an era of significantly more infrastructure spending.


Infrastructure projects in San Diego could be built several months faster and cost a bit less under a proposed package of reforms that aims to streamline projects by easing City Council approval requirements and softening restrictions on consultants and contractors.

The cost of a project would have to be much higher for council approval to be required, much fewer cost increases would require council approval, and consultants could work on more projects and accumulate more fees without an OK from the council.

The package of changes, which the council is expected to consider this fall, also aims to boost transparency by providing the public with more information about which firms complete city work and how much they receive cumulatively.

The changes would require city officials to provide nearby residents with more information about upcoming projects, including precise timelines and potential effects on local noise and traffic.

“We looked for opportunities and items that slowed every project phase and every step,” said Rania Amen, who was appointed director of the city’s Engineering & Capital Projects Department in January.

Amen estimated that a typical project would be completed four to six months faster under the package of reforms. The cost also would be a bit lower because city staff members could spend less time preparing proposals for council approval, freeing them to work on other projects.

The proposal comes with San Diego’s spending on infrastructure projects sharply on the rise and expected to keep rising in coming years with a large influx of federal money anticipated under the $1 trillion infrastructure law that President Joe Biden approved last year.

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The city faces a $4 billion backlog of crucial infrastructure projects, partly because many projects built during a city growth spurt in the 1950s and ‘60s are reaching the end of their expected life spans.

The backlog — the gap between estimated infrastructure needs over the next five years and the funding available for them — excludes possible expansion of the waterfront convention center and revamping facilities that might be vulnerable to sea-level rise.

San Diego’s annual spending on infrastructure has risen from $363 million in the 2011-12 fiscal year to $542.5 million in fiscal 2021-22, which ended June 30.

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Infrastructure spending over the next five years is expected to be $4.12 billion, partly because of construction of the city’s Pure Water sewage purification system. Mayor Todd Gloria’s staff said annual spending could surpass $1 billion with more federal dollars.

Gloria says it’s important for San Diego to be nimble and adapt well to the increased infrastructure spending. He says the proposed changes, which supporters called long overdue, will help make that happen.

“Delivering the quality infrastructure improvements that our communities deserve is a top priority for my administration,” Gloria said.

The city since 2012 hasn’t updated the cost thresholds for projects and consulting contracts that require approval from the council.

The proposal would raise the threshold for council approval of a consulting contract from $1 million to $3 million. City staff says that increase makes sense because the average cost of a consulting contract has risen from $650,000 in 2015 to $2.5 million today.

Other changes include raising the cumulative limit on fees a consultant can receive in a particular year without council approval from $1 million to $5 million.

Firms that do city work praised the proposed changes last week during a meeting of the council’s Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Edgar Camerino, president of the local chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies, said the proposed streamlining would allow projects to be built faster.

“Streamlining the contract process is a benefit not only to the consultant industry and the city of San Diego but to the millions of residents that live here,” he said.

Carmen Kasner, a civil engineer, said the current approval limits delayed a project she worked on by months because of the need for council approval of a $250,000 support contract.

“We need infrastructure completed efficiently, and any efforts to streamline the process should be taken,” she said.

City Council member Marni von Wilpert, chairwoman of the infrastructure committee, said she is comfortable with the proposals despite the reduced council oversight. She noted that an earlier version of the plan would have raised the approval thresholds even higher.

“We have a lot to balance here,’’ she said. “We want to make sure the City Council does its job of oversight. But we also want to make sure we actually get projects done and out the door.”