What’s with Berkeley’s streets?

I’m often asked by friends from surrounding cities why Berkeley’s streets are like those of an impoverished nation when we’re among the highest taxed cities. As an engineer who rides his bicycle around Berkeley and the surrounding cities, I pay a lot of attention to the condition of roads. As the chairman of the campaigns to increase Berkeley’s funding for parks and infrastructure, I’d like to see the streets in better shape, but I am also suspicious of using bonds for street repairs if the repairs won’t last longer than the time it takes to repay the bonds. I’ve looked into the funding we’ve used for streets, and while I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do have some insights that can help further the conversation that has been going on in Berkeleyside.

Didn’t we pay for fixing the streets with Measure M?

In November 2012, Berkeley approved Measure M, which provided $30 million in bond financing for funding Berkeley’s streets and green infrastructure. While it was anticipated that the measure would improve the condition of Berkeley’s streets, and would be completed in five years, it has taken longer and the streets are now in worse shape according to calculations of the pavement condition index, or PCI. Berkeley is not alone; most cities in California responded to the loss of funding in Proposition 13 by cutting funding for things that would not immediately be visible—like maintenance of streets. $30 million was simply not enough money to make much progress in repairing streets that had been ignored for decades.

How hard could it be?

There are a number of things about streets, and Berkeley’s streets in particular, that make it much harder. It is clear that the cost estimates for Measure M were overly optimistic, and were based on simply replacing the asphalt paving between the curbs. But when a street is rehabilitated, the city has a responsibility to bring it up to current standards. Berkeley has also adopted policies that call for “complete streets” — a requirement for county and state funding – which means that streets should be a “comprehensive, integrated transportation network… that allows safe and convenient travel for all users.” This includes walkers, bicyclists, and people with disabilities. Thus, street repair is about twice as expensive as anticipated in the drafting of Measure M.

There are other problems that make repairing Berkeley’s street more difficult. The streets are old, most have infrastructure buried under them that has reached the end of its expected life, many were built in high clay soils that swell in the rainy season and shrink in the dry season, and in many cases are narrow. All of those complicate repairs and increase costs. As old as many of the utility lines are, they have settled and caused deterioration. Narrow streets require more staff to control traffic, so it takes longer and labor costs are greater.

Piecemeal repairs and different underground utilities make this all worse. Each time you dig up a street, you create a seam that can be, eventually, a tiny hole that allows water into the road. When a car, or a heavy truck passes over that water a pothole is created, and if not repaired promptly, potholes can grow rapidly and destroy the integrity of the street’s subsurface.

How big is the problem?

The City Council just adopted a five-year paving plan that will allocate $47.81 million in funding for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. Of that, $9.625 million comes from the city’s CIP (capital improvement program) fund, $8.5 million from Measure T1, and the rest of the funding from state and county taxes and vehicle registration funds. Additional funding, approximately $20 million in one-time grants, will be spent on projects like the reconstruction of Shattuck Avenue now underway. While this will result in a lot of visible construction, it is not nearly enough. The five-year plan would pave only 20.37 miles of the 210 miles of roads in the city. The condition of the paving has continued to deteriorate since Measure M was passed in 2012. Consultants for the city hired to evaluate road conditions have estimated that it would require between $10 and $12 million in additional funding each year to raise the PCI to 70 by 2028, the stated goal of Measure M.

What now?

If we are going to have streets in better condition, we are going to have to spend more money. The City Council has already adopted a two-year budget that doesn’t increase funding, and the existing staff working on streets can’t double their output. I recommend that the council add $1 million in the mid-year revisions to the budget to increase staff capacity and prepare to pave more streets. I would further ask the council to add $2 million in funding in the following year, $4 million in the year after that, and $6 million in the following year. At that point, it will be useful to see how effective that has been, and consider additional funding increases. This is intended to slowly implement the recommendations of the outside consultants that perhaps as much as $12 million more each year is needed to raise the PCI to 70.

Where should this money come from? While some work on complete streets, particularly concrete work like curbs and sidewalks, is durable, an asphalt street surface will only last about 20 years. It makes no sense to issue bonds that will be paid back over 30 to 40 years for improvements that will be long gone before the bonds are paid off. The city has an annual budget of over $400 million and general fund revenue that has increased from $100 million in 2002 to nearly $200 million by 2018. Some of the increases over the next five years should be dedicated to repairing our streets.

Simply adding funding is not enough; it will still be necessary to set priorities. A problem that has been growing for 30 years can’t be fixed overnight, and most likely not even within a decade. But we should have a clear understanding of the scope of the problem – how many streets are failing, and what the total repair cost might be. We should identify and prioritize those projects that have the greatest economic benefits – either by sustaining our employment or by avoiding more costly repairs if we wait. But everyone who pays taxes for streets should be able to see what is being done to improve the situation, and when it might be their neighborhood’s turn.

We should also use the Vision Zero process to identify priorities. Berkeley has a large number of bicyclists and walkers, who reduce our carbon footprint. We should make safety for those modes of travel a priority, and create a safe network.

We can probably narrow some streets, allowing installation of green infrastructure and traffic calming measures that are durable and can and should be funded with bonds. Some of our streets once carried rail cars, and need not be so wide for existing residential densities. Planting trees and reducing the amount of asphalt that must be maintained could help us respond to rising summer temperatures.

Finally, we should work together with all those who have utilities buried under our streets to make sure that repairs and reconstruction are carefully coordinated to minimize street excavation. Perhaps a version of the “one dig” policy adopted by cities like San Francisco could create an incentive to coordinate needed repairs and save money.

James McGrath is a member of the Public Works Commission but is writing in his individual capacity.
James McGrath is a member of the Public Works Commission but is writing in his individual capacity.