A new audit of Berkeley’s streets has a clear message: The situation is bad, and if nothing changes, it’ll only get worse.
Titled “Rocky Road: Berkeley Streets at Risk and Significantly Underfunded,” the report calls for a new street repair policy — the last was prepared in 2009 — and a significant increase in funding for repair and maintenance.
This alarm has been ringing since 2011 when former city auditor Ann-Marie Hogan released a report calling attention to the “serious state of disrepair” of Berkeley’s 216 miles of roads. The average street condition has barely changed since then.
“Berkeley streets are among the worst in the Bay Area,” said Jenny Wong, the Berkeley city auditor who oversaw the report. “If the funding for street paving is maintained at current levels, the overall quality of our streets will continue to decline.”
In 2011, Berkeley had a score of 57 out of 100 on the pavement condition index, or PCI, meaning they were “at risk” with “deteriorated pavement requiring immediate attention, including rehabilitative work,” according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The PCI is a standard measurement for street conditions that rates them from 0 to 100, with lower scores classified as “at risk,” “poor” or “failed.”
Six years later, in 2017, the roads still had a 57 score, making Berkeley’s streets the 15th worst out of 101 cities in the Bay Area.
By 2018, a year in which Berkeley failed to pave a single street, the city’s score inched up to 58 — still not enough to move it out of the “at risk” category. About 230 street segments had a PCI of more than 90.
A ‘worst first’ approach
Berkeley’s approach to street maintenance has followed what the Metropolitan Transportation Commission calls a “worst first” strategy, the report says. Such jurisdictions spend more on fixing the worst streets when they should be proactively maintaining all streets, including those that aren’t a problem yet. As regular maintenance is put on hold to prioritize the worst streets, overall repair costs creep upward.
If Berkeley continues on its current path, it could be looking at $328 million in deferred maintenance costs by 2023, the report says. Streets could reach a low of 52 on the PCI scale by that same year, just a few points away from being considered “poor.”
Part of the reason for this report was to answer the most frequent question Wong hears from residents, which is “Why are Berkeley streets in such bad condition?”
“We thought we would try to shed light, and figure out the why,” she said.
Measures M and T1, which Berkeley voters passed in 2012 and 2016, have provided an important stopgap for desperately-needed additional street repair funding. Measure M secured $30 million in bonds for street paving and green infrastructure, and T1 allowed for $100 million in bonds for numerous city infrastructure projects, including some street paving.
The funds expended from Measure M allowed Berkeley to triple the number of streets it paved in the five years after the bond was passed, Matthai Chakko, the city spokesman, told Berkeleyside in 2018. But the expenditure did not raise Berkeley’s PCI to 75, as promoters had predicted. The city has already spent $10.4 million on current street projects from Measure T1, Parks Department Director Scott Ferris told Berkeleyside in an email. Berkeley is still deciding how to spend the next $53 million tranche of Measure T1 funds.
Wong’s report states that it will take $328 million to repair the city’s streets, which is almost three times the amount the city had last estimated. Berkeley’s 2018-19 Capital Improvement Plan reported that the city would have to spend $100 million on street repairs — plus another $24.5 million to fix sidewalks, curbs and storm drains. A consultant told the City Council in December 2018 that the city would have to spend an additional $10 million to $12 million a year to bring the city’s PCI to 70 by 2028.
The Public Works Department says in the report that it will do a budget analysis and identify potential funding streams by January 2021, but “the city will need to secure permanent funding,” Wong added.
Nearby cities like El Cerrito, Moraga, and Orinda passed ballot measures for additional sales tax revenue to fund street repair, but such taxes “disproportionately impact lower-income residents and… may not be the best solution for Berkeley,” the report says. However, those cities have shown that change is possible: El Cerrito improved its PCI score from a “poor” 48 to an “excellent” 85 in less than five years.
The coronavirus pandemic is another strain on Berkeley’s budget, which could affect how quickly the city can address street repair, Wong said.
“The city, like all other cities throughout the country, is facing fiscal challenges due to COVID-19,” she said. “What we’re pointing out is a longer-term issue that does need to be addressed.”
Adding equity to the equation
One of the Public Works Department’s goals is to consider equity when making a paving plan, but the 2009 Street Rehabilitation and Maintenance plan doesn’t even include the word “equity,” the audit says.
“We include the word equity without ever defining metrics,” Margo Schueler, a member of the Public Works Commission, told Berkeleyside. Without a definition or measurements, “equity” in street repair has defaulted to spending the same amount of money in every council district, she said, “which isn’t exactly equity if you look at our streets.”
Districts 5 and 8 have the best average rating for their streets and District 7 has the worst, the report says. It also predicts that streets in Districts 1 and 2 will slide from “at risk” to “poor” condition in the next three years.
That’s an “unacceptable outcome,” said District 1 Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani, calling the audit an “urgent wake-up call for city leaders” in a statement to Berkeleyside.
“At our current inadequate rate of funding, streets will continue to deteriorate from fair to poor over the next five years — with disastrous consequences for all street users,” Kesarwani wrote. “I’ve been working with our Public Works staff and my Public Works Commissioner to develop an actionable revenue plan for our streets.”
Wong cautioned against judging all districts by the same measures: Some have far more residential streets, while others have busier roads and highways. However, the city has also prioritized repairing residential streets in recent years, breaking with its own policies, the audit found.
“What we’re pointing out is that they’re not following the policy,” Wong said. “If they don’t like this policy, they can change it.”
A subcommittee of the Public Works Commission is already working on an updated street rehabilitation and repair policy, Schueler said, with a more concentrated effort beginning in January 2021.