Nebulous yet necessary, that squiggly catch-all known as "infrastructure" is the election season's hot topic.
It's on the lips of every Palo Alto City Council candidate and on the minds of many voters. Although it sounds daunting, infrastructure is just a fancy word for streets and sidewalks, buildings, storm drains, light poles, bridges, pipes and just about everything else that keeps Palo Alto running.
It's complex, costly and critical.
And when candidates and citizens weigh in, citing figures and anecdotes, infrastructure can become downright confusing.
For an added twist, in this election "infrastructure" also refers to the need for a new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, an expanded Main Library and system-wide library improvements, and it also means a new police and emergency-command headquarters, also called a "public-safety building."
These projects have been discussed for years and already have preliminary designs, but depend on $95 million of bonds, which require two-thirds of voters' approval. And according to a recent survey and a 21-voter focus group held in August, the passage of the bonds, proposed for a 2008 ballot, is doubtful. A February survey found that 57 percent support the public-safety building bond and 65 percent are in favor of the libraries bond. It might take a year to 18 months for the city to build support among voters, many of whom are dubious or even cynical about the city's ability to perform, the consultants reported.
To help voters pick the best persons for the job in the Nov. 6 election, here's a brief review of the city's recent infrastructure efforts and a look at what the 11 City Council candidates have to say about the "I" word.
In 2000, Palo Alto launched an Infrastructure Management Plan, also called CityWorks, based on a mid-1990s survey of all city facilities and property, the Adamson Report. The report detailed a $100 million backlog of needs, not including schools or non-critical improvements.
That report is being updated, and some officials believe the new total for infrastructure maintenance and replacement could be as high as $200 million, according to Councilman Bern Beecham -- one of the four members vacating a council seat this year.
By March 2007, the city had spent $53 million on non-utilities deficiencies listed in the report, according to Assistant Public Works Director Mike Sartor.
Including utilities, the city plans to spend another $50 to $60 million on infrastructure maintenance and upgrades between July 2007 and July 2008.
About $41 million will go to utilities maintenance and upgrades. For that, Palo Alto will have a rebuilt underground electric-distribution system along El Camino Real, a relocated Alma Street substation, converted overhead electrical lines to underground, progress on an emergency water-supply project, additional gas-main replacements, a new storm-water pump station and more.
The balance includes $3 million for streets, $1.6 million for sidewalks and a variety of other projects: $100,000 for roofs, $400,000 for Greer Park and $130,000 for resurfacing tennis and basketball courts.
The street funding includes an annual increase of $250,000 to keep up with an extensive street-repair backlog -- potholes are one of the most frequent voter gripes in the campaign. Twenty-two miles of roadway will be treated or coated this year, while six "lane miles" will be repaved, according to Senior Engineer Elizabeth Ames of the Public Works Department. The city also acquired a $680,000 state grant to develop a bike boulevard along Maybell Avenue.
Despite the catch-up push, more improvements are needed, nearly everyone agrees.
Most critical, according to current council members, is the $45 million upgrade and expansion of the libraries and a new $50 million public-safety building.
Given the state of the city's infrastructure and financing needs, campaigning council candidates are hoping to win voter favor through their views on how to tackle the dilemma, in particular the bonds.
Dan Dykwel said he still supports placing one or both bond measures on a 2008 ballot. The 21-voter focus group isn't representative of the community, he said, noting that he has heard from many people who support the libraries and public-safety projects.
"I'm trying to make people aware of the real details so they can make decisions based on the real facts," Dykwel said.
Victor Frost has said he supports the library and public-safety bonds.
Bill Ross has said he would like to investigate using certificates of participation -- which would likely require the city to lease its new facilities -- to pay for the public-safety and library improvements. Ross said he would also explore dedicating future increases in property-tax revenues to library operations.
Sid Espinosa said Palo Altans need to draw on creativity, explore private/public partnerships and conduct an educational campaign to finance infrastructure and gain support for the public-safety and library bonds.
A key responsibility of the next council is to prioritize its spending and ensure voters understand what is needed, Espinosa said.
Pat Burt said he thought the focus group accurately captured some voters' sense of distrust of the city.
City leaders need to "aggressively" demonstrate accountability and openness to gain public confidence before they can pursue the financing measures, Burt said.
"You can't just go forward and simply put them on and think they're going to pass without addressing the perception that was shown in the focus groups," he said.
Greg Schmid said the bond issues are very important and should have been done five to 10 years ago.
"I think with strong leadership, with the City Council going out to the community and explaining the importance of both the library and the public-safety building, I think we can achieve the necessary vote to pass it," Schmid said.
Mark Nadim said he believes creative outreach is needed to inform the public about the library and public-safety needs.
He said he supports raising private funds to offset the cost of the bonds and then spending the next year educating the public before the November 2008 election.
Smokey Wallace would like to increase infrastructure spending on issues such as roads, but he doesn't support the library or public-safety bonds.
Both the libraries and the Police Department need to be reorganized before additional money is sought from the voters, Wallace said.
Tim Gray said the city needs to demonstrate its financial responsibility to the public before trying to convince the public of the need for the bond measures.
"All the support that's voiced for infrastructure isn't going to do any good if we can't get citizen cooperation," Gray said.
He said the city needs to make "budget clarification" an emergency priority and then advocate for the bonds.
Yiaway Yeh said he supports both bonds but believes the library measure is "riper" in terms of voter support.
"In the end, this is still a vote to the people. That means you can't rush it," Yeh said.
It would be up to the council to take a leadership position to involve citizens, he said.
"This is an opportunity for us to work together toward something that we can be proud of."
Stella Marinos has said she needs to do more research to form a position on the public-safety or library bonds.