Cracks that lead to constant potholes on Dwight Way at Telegraph. Photo: Tracey Taylor

According to a report from the City Auditor presented to the City Council last night, the average Berkeley street is in “at risk” condition. As the report, “Failing Streets,” details, as street condition deteriorates, the cost of paving increases rapidly.

“Berkeley streets are in a serious state of disrepair, with the average street at risk of failing,” said City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan. “Our audit shows how to use available data to decide how much to invest, when, and where, to stop the skyrocketing future cost of failed streets.”

The audit used StreetSaver software, developed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for the nine-county Bay Area. The software assigns a pavement condition index (PCI) between 100 (excellent) and 0 (failed) for a city’s streets and generates scenarios for five-year repair plans. Berkeley’s streets have an average PCI of 58, at the top of the “at risk” range.

Many of the city’s 216 miles of streets, however, are in far worse shape. Nearly 25% have a PCI of poor and 12% are failed. Only 38% of Berkeley’s streets have a PCI of good or better.

As Hogan explained to the City Council during a worksession on the report, costs for rehabilitating streets escalate rapidly as the condition deteriorates. Streets in good or better condition cost $36,000 per mile to rehabilitate — all they really need is routine maintenance and crack repair. Fair condition streets require a thin asphalt overlay, which raises costs to $126,000 per mile. At risk and poor streets require a thick asphalt overlay, where sends costs up to $309,000 per mile. Failed streets cost $1,153,000 per mile to rehabilitate.

The audit report presents scenarios designed to increase the city’s average PCI to 75, the midrange of good condition. That’s the goal set by the MTC for the Bay Area. At the city’s current rate of spending on paving — $3.66 million a year, in the current five-year plan — the average would rise to 63. But Hogan explained that the “unfunded liability” — the build up of costs as many streets deteriorate further — would be $41.7 million at the end of the first year and $70.8 million by the end of the fifth.

“If we can’t afford to fix the streets now,” Hogan told the City Council, “our children and grandchildren are definitely not going to be able to afford to fix the streets.”

According to the scenarios in the report, an annual expenditure of $17.5 million per year over the next five years would reduce the unfunded need to zero and raise the average PCI to 82. Spending $15 million per year would push the PCI to 79, with $7 million in unfunded need. Annual spending of $12.5 million would result in an average PCI of 73 and an unfunded need of $19.4 million.

The report presents five possible paths for funding: an increase in local sales tax and bonded debt, an increase in local sales tax alone, a general tax, a citywide benefit assessment district, or separate benefit assessment districts. The presentation last night presented nearby El Cerrito as a case study. There a half-cent local sales tax and a $10.5 million bond raised average PCI to 85. The city now spends $500,000 per year on street maintenance. El Cerrito has 68 miles of streets, so a similar result in Berkeley would produce annual street maintenance of about $2 million.

In the discussion of the report at the council meeting, a number of council members focused on the potential to use new technologies and materials to improve both the durability of a street and its contribution to the city’s watershed plan. Larry Henry, chair of the Public Works Commission, said it was advocating a trial program of using permeable, interlocking concrete pavers, rather than asphalt.

“Asphalt is a terrible material,” said Councilman Gordon Wozniak. “You have to repave three times in 50 years. We need a better material.” Wozniak urged the council to consider more expensive materials if the cost over 50 years would be advantageous.

Hogan stressed that the audit report was not making specific recommendations, but giving the council “an opportunity to do some data-driven decision making.”

Lance Knobel (Berkeleyside co-founder) has been a journalist for nearly 40 years. Much of his career was in business journalism. He was editor-in-chief of both Management Today, the leading business magazine...