Proposal Aids San Diego Infrastructure Projects
A proposed package of reforms to streamline infrastructure projects in San Diego would help speed up construction and lower costs if approved by the city council this fall. Additionally, the proposal would boost transparency to the public by providing more information about which firms complete city work and how much they receive.
The San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the cost of a project would have to be much higher for City Council approval to be required, far fewer cost increases for projects would require council approval, and consultants could work on more projects and accumulate more fees without an approval from the council.
City officials would also be required to provide residents more information about upcoming projects, such as precise timelines and impacts on 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 new Engineering and Capital Projects Department in January.
It is estimated that a typical project would be completed four to six months faster under the reforms, with the cost being lowered due to less time being spent preparing for proposals for approvals. This will also allow city officials to work on other projects more quickly.
San Diego infrastructure projects could be faster, cheaper with proposed reforms https://t.co/2Q0p4WhDgV— HeadLight (@HeadLightIQ) July 29, 2022
The proposed changes come at a time when infrastructure projects in San Diego are on the rise, thanks to the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law signed last year by President Joe Biden.
The city also reportedly faces a $4 billion backlog of critical infrastructure projects, with many projects built in the 1950s and 1960s reaching the end of their expected lifespans. The backlog will also prevent possible expansions and other needed projects.
Cost thresholds for projects and consulting contracts that require approval have not been updated since 2012. At the time, fiscal year spending was just $363 million.
San Diego’s annual spending on infrastructure has risen to $542.5 million in fiscal year 2022, which ended in June. Infrastructure spending is expected to reach $4.12 billion over the next five years, with Mayor Todd Gloria’s staff saying annual spending could surpass $1 billion with more federal dollars.
The proposal would raise the threshold for council approval of a consulting contract from $1 million to $3 million. This also makes sense, city staff say, because the average cost of a consulting contract has risen from $650,000 in 2015 to $2.5 million today.
“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,” said Edgar Camerino, president of the local chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies.
“We have a lot to balance here,” said Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, chair of the infrastructure committee. “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.”
At the beginning of the month, the city council also approved Mayor Todd Gloria’s Build Better SD initiative to create citywide funds for more efficient and equitable infrastructure delivery. The initiative puts development impact fees collected into citywide funds by asset types, as opposed to placing these fees into 43 separate neighborhood funds.
Because of this, projects that were previously underfunded in neighborhoods can be “topped off” with new citywide fee collections to implement projects faster in every part of the city.
“For the past 40 years, we’ve used developer fees to pay only for specifically listed infrastructure in the communities where the fees were generated. Once upon a time, that made sense – but not anymore. Now, that system only perpetuates historic inequities and leads to millions of desperately needed infrastructure dollars sitting unused. That changes today,” Mayor Gloria said.
“With ‘Build Better SD,’ we’ll be able to prioritize projects – libraries, streets and other public spaces – where the need is greatest and get projects across the City completed faster.”
San Diego Transit Infrastructure Plan
In December, the San Diego Association of Government announced that its Board of Directors had passed the 2021 Regional Transportation Plan. The plan is expected to run through 2050 and will invest $160 billion in road and transit infrastructure.
The plan was reportedly approved by 57.8% to 42.1% without the controversial road usage tax proposal, which planned for a four-cents-per-mile tax and two half-cent regional sales taxes in 2022 and 2028. According to reports, SANDAG estimated that the tax could raise more than $34 billion through 2050.
The long-term plan calls for investments in technology, public transit, roadways and green infrastructure. SANDAG’s vision for transportation focuses on the “5 Big Moves”:
Green infrastructure was a large portion of the plan, with state law requiring that the plans needed to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Zero-emission buses, electric vehicles and charging stations and traffic-protected bike lanes are all planned to be included throughout the city.
The plan was developed following years of gathered community input and data analyzed by SANDAG, which it started presenting in 2019 to the Board. The first draft was released in May of last year, with a public review and comment period taking place until Aug. 6.
SANDAG also released a draft of an Environmental Impact Report for review. It took into consideration the nearly 17,000 comments in the process of development. According to reports, the plan meets all state and federal requirements and air quality mandates.
Speeding Up Infrastructure Processes
In May, the Biden-Harris Administration released a new Permitting Action Plan to accelerate federal permitting and environmental reviews for infrastructure projects funded through the bipartisan infrastructure law.
The action plan outlines the strategy to ensure that federal environmental reviews and permitting processes are effective, efficient and transparent, while guided by the best available science to promote positive environmental and community outcomes. In turn, it hopes that these steps will help strengthen supply chains, lower costs and grow clean energy.
Additionally, the goal is to deliver long overdue infrastructure investments on task, on time and budget without delays while promoting environmental goals. The action plan will reportedly result in better-permitting outcomes, enhanced predictability for project sponsors and increased accountability.
According to the White House Fact Sheet, the Permitting Action plan is built on five key elements to help ensure timely and effective delivery of infrastructure upgrades:
As part of the action plan, the Administration says it will leverage the interagency Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council’s expanded authorities under the bipartisan infrastructure law to improve coordination among agencies, help avoid and resolve potential conflicts and bottlenecks, identify and share best practices, and accelerate information sharing and troubleshooting.
This includes interagency coordination on siting, permitting, supply chain and related issues, as well as promoting efficient and timely reviews. This will be done in part by developing and preparing new approaches to permitting and environmentally review to help address common issues, eliminate duplication and incorporate a climate-smart approach.
The White House also plans to create permitting schedules with clear timeline goals that are both ambitious and realistic, contain relevant milestones and meet all requirements. To increase transparency and accountability, the Federal Permitting Dashboard will also track key project information, including these timelines and milestones.
There will also be a focus on consultation with communities to ensure that the public, including disadvantaged communities, will have the opportunity to participate in decision-making. Agencies are expected to proactively partner and coordinate with relevant state, territorial and local governments.
The following month, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a similar executive directive to streamline the state’s permitting process for infrastructure projects of $50 million or more. Projects include energy production, electricity transmission, surface transportation, aviation, ports and waterways, water resources, broadband, pipelines, manufacturing, mining and carbon capture sectors.
According to the directive, the Michigan Infrastructure Office will convene interested departments to create a coordinated permitting plan for the review of applications for state permits once a covered project is identified. Departments will then create a publicly available permitting schedule, allocate roles and responsibilities and establish a plan for public outreach.
Additionally, departments and agencies will review their own and other permitting schedules to identify any areas in which they can avoid duplication, streamline processes and share information to expedite the review of permits.
The Department of Transportation reports that Michigan is expected to receive $7.8 billion over five years in federal formula funding for highways and bridges, $169 million to reduce transportation emissions and $192 million to increase the resilience of transportation systems. It will also be able to compete for $12.5 billion for “economically significant bridges,” $15 billion for megaprojects and other federal grant programs.