San Diego cracks down on road trenching to improve its crumbling streets

Asphalt work crews wearing reflective shirts and hard hats install new asphalt surface to a section of road.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Damages fees are slated to more than double, but that won’t make much of a dent in the city’s billion-dollar backlog.


San Diego took a key step toward boosting the quality of its crumbling streets Monday when the City Council cracked down on damage caused by road trenching to lay cable, fix streetlights, repair pipes and do other work.

The council unanimously approved a much tougher street preservation ordinance and signaled it will soon more than double the street damage fee paid by utility companies and others that dig into San Diego’s 3,000 miles of streets.

City officials say the new law takes a holistic approach to the trenching problem. It makes those who dig into streets more accountable and clarifies their obligations, but it also tries to coordinate their work to avoid excessive and repeated trenching.

Critics note that the higher fee is expected to generate only a few million more dollars for street repair each year, which won’t make much of a dent in San Diego’s estimated $987 million pavement repair backlog.

The gap — 20 percent higher than last year’s — would be even wider if city officials hadn’t essentially eliminated needed building upgrades from the analysis.

Jan. 27, 2023

They also note that roughly half the money from the fee increase is expected to come from the city’s sewer and water departments, which dig into city streets more than anyone else. So the higher fee will raise sewer and water rates.

The legislation also includes a major compromise with private industry: It won’t take effect until Jan. 1, and any trenching project approved before then, even if work hasn’t begun, need only comply with the lower fees and older, more lenient rules.

When the new law and sharp fee increases were first announced last fall, leaders of local industries responsible for much of the trenching in San Diego’s roads expressed strong opposition.

The proposal would sharply increase fees paid by utility companies and would require faster and more comprehensive fixes to city streets.

Nov. 14, 2022

But only one company — Netley Fiber in Solana Beach — spoke against the proposal Monday. Netley officials said the new fees would be too high and favor larger telecommunications companies over smaller ones with less money.

City officials credited the relative lack of industry opposition to some compromises they made and to several months of working closely with industry leaders to refine the new law and the fees.

The new law allows companies to potentially avoid the higher street damage fee by agreeing to fully repair a street to a higher standard instead of paying the fee.

Mayor Todd Gloria, who spearheaded the new law and fee increase, hailed it Monday and predicted it would sharply boost the quality of city streets.

“It’s a simple concept: You break it, you fix it,” the mayor said. “The updated ordinance will ensure that private utilities, city crews and contractors who excavate in the right of way are held to a high standard of complete and timely repairs.”

Thousands more repairs will be contracted out, outdated circuits are getting replaced, and temporary solar lights are being installed in high-crime areas

July 8, 2023

Another goal is reducing injuries to cyclists and pedestrians caused by damaged pavement — and the lawsuit payouts that come along with those injuries.

City officials say San Diego has paid out more than $7 million to people injured by trenching-related damage and received only about $380,000 from companies it says are responsible for the trenching damage.

One way the new law will enhance street safety is by requiring higher-quality resurfacing after trenching and tighter time limits for temporary asphalt patches, which often sink and make streets uneven.

The law also requires companies to complete repairs more quickly and to do comprehensive asphalt overlays more frequently, instead of the less aggressive slurry seal fixes now typically required after trenching.

Companies would also need to address broader areas of pavement than under current city policy. That’s partly because studies show that even narrow trenches weaken wide areas of a street, making it vulnerable to potholes and premature decay.

In addition, companies would be required to fix more expensive concrete streets with entire concrete panels. Under the current policy, they have been allowed to repair concrete streets with asphalt.

The changes would also extend the city’s street preservation law to alleys, which haven’t previously been covered.

City Councilmember Kent Lee said the new law and fee hike would benefit the city in many ways.

“Fiscally responsible management of the city’s streets is beneficial for the economy, for tourism, for public safety and for our quality of life,” he said.

Lee said the trenching problem creates the need for a true compromise.

“It’s critical to achieve all of our infrastructure and technology goals, ranging from maintaining and update our aging water and sewage pipes to bridging the digital divided,” he said. “We also have to recognize there could be a long-term impact when it comes to the quality of streets.”

Councilmember Joe LaCava blamed past mayors and councils for not raising the street damage fee, which has remained unchanged since 2013. He said that’s why this council has to more than double it — raising it 135 percent.

“When past administrations haven’t bothered to do this, we get kinda stuck,” he said.

The new law is part of a broader city effort to boost the overall quality of San Diego streets, which rose from a rating of 58.9 in 2011 to 71.5 in 2016 — the last time the city did an overall condition index. A rating of 70 or above is classified as “good.”

A new survey, which began in March and is scheduled to conclude in late summer, is expected to show the quality of city streets has dropped significantly since 2016 — definitely below 70.

From pothole depth to overall smoothness, the first survey since 2016 aims to assess the quality of every street so the city can better repair them.

March 31, 2023

The council approved only the new law, not the fee hike, Monday based on advice from City Attorney Mara Elliott that the council should take the two actions separately.

The council’s budget committee is scheduled to discuss the new street damage fee Wednesday. If they approve it — all four members of the committee expressed support Monday — it will come to the full council for final approval this summer.

Revenue from the street damage fee in fiscal year 2022 was $3.8 million. If the increase had been in place, revenue would have been $8.9 million — an additional $5.1 million dwarfed by the city’s nearly billion-dollar paving backlog.

The new law, like all city ordinances, must be approved by the council a second time. That vote is expected in the next few weeks, city officials said.