San Diego City Council approves diverting park improvement funds to freeway off-ramp repairs
The San Diego City Council voted 7-2 on Monday to spend $1.7 million in park improvement funds on repairs to a damaged freeway off-ramp.
The Quince Drive off-ramp from northbound State Route 163 has been closed for months after a series of rainstorms battered San Diego this past winter. The storms caused parts of the pavement to wash away and city staff fear they may have caused slope instability as well.
The off-ramp, built with the freeway in 1947, was used by roughly 2,150 vehicles per day in 2016, according to Caltrans data. That makes it one of the lowest-volume exits on the 163 freeway. About 118,000 cars drive through Balboa Park on the freeway each day.
But despite the exit's relatively low use, city staff argued it is a critical route for motorists to get from downtown and the South Bay to Bankers Hill, Hillcrest and Balboa Park's west mesa. They also said ambulances use the exit to access the two hospitals in Hillcrest.
Council President Sean Elo-Rivera, who voted with Councilmember Joe LaCava against the funding reallocation, countered that staff had not gathered any data on how often ambulances use Quince Drive, nor have they analyzed the potential impacts of closing the off-ramp permanently.
"We don't know how often it is used or for what purposes," Elo-Rivera said. "Was it by necessity or convenience? Is it actually faster? I don't know any of those things."
While park improvement funds are rarely used for freeways, staff say the location of SR-163 and Quince Drive in Balboa Park makes the off-ramp repairs an eligible use.
About $600,000 of the $1.7 million would come from savings on other park improvement projects that were completed under budget. The rest would come from interest earnings and other park projects that were allocated funds this year, but are not yet shovel-ready.
Councilmember Joe LaCava said he supported repairing the off-ramp but opposed doing so with funds meant for park improvements.
"The city has done a very good job of identifying these little buckets of money that are leftover when a project's approved and figure out how to bring them together for other projects that are waiting for funding," LaCava said. "I do have a problem with the fact that we're using the regional park improvement funds as opposed to street funds or storm drain funds."
City staff said the repairs were urgent enough that the project warranted the use of whatever funding is available. They expect the off-ramp will reopen by the end of the year, and that repairs to the storm drain and the revegetation of the slope will be complete in early 2024.
"There's just not enough resources for all the needs," said Tom Tomlinson, assistant director of the city's Parks and Recreation Department. "This is an emergency, and this is one of the available funding sources we have that we can use."
San Diego voters established the Regional Park Improvement Fund to ensure a portion of the revenues from the city's various landholdings in Mission Bay Park are spent on regional parks, such as Balboa Park, Chicano Park, Chollas Lake Park and city beaches.
Balboa Park has a long backlog of unfunded repairs ranging from replacing outdated bathrooms to electrical repairs to drainage upgrades. A report published last year by the nonprofit Burnham Center for Community Advancement found the city would need to spend $444.2 million by 2036 to bring all of Balboa Park's amenities into good condition.
The total cost of the off-ramp repairs — including engineering consultants and construction — is currently estimated at $2.7 million. City staff had already allocated $1 million from the city's bond revenues and its general fund.