New street paving policy could create ‘Equity Zone’ with priority for repairs

The plan would shift much of the city’s spending from major corridors to neighborhood streets, with a focus on West and South Berkeley.

Repaving work on Adeline Street in 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley is considering the most significant overhaul of its paving policy in more than a decade, with a raft of changes that would shift the focus of maintenance work from busy arterials to quieter neighborhood roads while also directing a bigger share of the city’s spending to streets in its least-wealthy neighborhoods.

The proposed new policy and $38.4 million five-year paving plan will go before the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday.

The policy would create a new “Equity Zone” covering much of West and South Berkeley, which officials identified using criteria that included residents’ median income and historic “redlining” maps that helped codify racial discrimination in housing. Whereas Berkeley has long sought to distribute funding equally among its eight council districts, the policy change would make streets in the Equity Zone a higher priority for repaving than the rest of the city. As a result, the area would receive 36% of street repair funding in the five-year paving plan, covering the 2023 through 2027 fiscal years — more than twice as much as it would have gotten under the existing policy.

“Certain parts of town, suffering from underinvestment through the decades, now have very low PCI,” said Councilmember Ben Bartlett, who represents South Berkeley, referring to the Pavement Condition Index metric used to grade road quality. City staff wrote in a report to the council that if the Equity Zone were a council district, it would have the lowest pavement score in the city.

The proposed new policy, Bartlett said, “Gets at the historical underinvestment, and brings a bit of infrastructure justice to Berkeley.”

But prioritizing the Equity Zone, when residents throughout the city are frustrated with potholes and rutted streets, is likely to be a contentious idea. As city officials develop plans for a ballot measure this November that could raise hundreds of millions of dollars for street repairs and other infrastructure needs, Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who represents the Berkeley Hills, cautioned that voters who live outside the zone may be hesitant to tax themselves if they don’t believe that money will flow to their neighborhoods.

“I don’t want to fight over pennies, but I do feel like we need to figure out something where every part of the city is going to benefit from a policy,” Wengraf said. “If we want support from the people, then we have to give them some sense of certainty that their streets will be paved.”

The proposed Berkeley policy is similar to the $100 million “equity-focused paving plan” Oakland officials rolled out in 2019, which Bartlett called an “inspiration.” Under that policy, Oakland targeted underserved neighborhoods — defined as areas where higher shares of residents are people of color, have low incomes, are not English speakers or are youth or seniors — to receive a bigger share of new funding raised through an infrastructure bond voters approved in 2016.

Oakland’s paving plan also proved controversial: the San Francisco Chronicle reported residents of neighborhoods in the hills complained they weren’t reaping as much of a benefit from new road funding as more money went to projects in the city’s flatlands.

Supporters of the strategy contend that distributing funding more equitably can help rectify historical patterns of city spending flowing to wealthier and whiter neighborhoods that long wielded greater political influence. And they argue poor road conditions have a disproportionate impact on low-income residents, who may struggle to pay a car repair bill prompted by a run-in with a nasty pothole.

In Berkeley, where skyrocketing housing costs mean homes in the Equity Zone’s historically diverse neighborhoods now regularly sell for over $1 million, Bartlett acknowledged many longtime residents have been replaced by more well-off newcomers. Still, Bartlett said, in the areas he represents “the new tech worker, the young family, still lives next door to the African-American senior who is on a fixed income.”

Under the new policy, projects in the Equity Zone would not be funded at the expense of those in the hills — in fact, Wengraf’s district would receive slightly more street spending as a result of the change, and she said she likely would support it.

Instead, the money would come from reduced funding for projects along major streets.

Berkeley’s existing paving policy, which was adopted in 2009, gives “arterial” corridors the biggest share of funding — a five-year paving plan based on that policy would spend 39% of its money on arterials, while residential streets would get 31%. The proposed new plan calls for spending 60% of paving dollars on residential streets and just 8% on arterials (“collector” streets, which fall between those two categories, would receive about 30% of spending under both policies). Projects along Telegraph Avenue, Sacramento Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way would be put on hold as a result of the new policy, while portions of Addison Street in West Berkeley and McGee Avenue in South Berkeley, among several other neighborhood streets, would be repaved.

This bumpy stretch of Addison Street in West Berkeley would be repaved in the 2026 fiscal year under a proposal to prioritize roads in a new “Equity Zone” for street maintenance funding. Credit: Nico Savidge

Councilmember Kate Harrison, another supporter of the proposed new policy, said the focus on arterials has meant road paving in her downtown district tends to focus on Shattuck Avenue, leaving her asking, “What about all the residential streets?”

Other aspects of the policy include a push to use permeable paving technology when feasible, as well as a “dig once” rule, which requires the city to coordinate with local utilities ahead of projects and institutes a five-year moratorium on any non-emergency work that would require tearing up newly repaved streets. City staff who developed the policy and paving plan declined to comment on them before Tuesday’s council meeting.

Ultimately, supporters of the proposals say neither the policy changes nor the new five-year plan will be enough to significantly improve the quality of Berkeley’s streets overall — accomplishing that, they contend, will take the kind of significant new infrastructure spending city leaders are expected to ask voters to approve on Election Day. Staff told the council it will cost Berkeley an additional $22 million per year, almost three times the proposed annual paving budget, to raise street conditions city-wide from their current grade of “at-risk” to “good.”

Without new funding, Bartlett said, the city’s efforts to distribute paving dollars more equitably will remain a zero-sum game that leaves other needs unmet.

“We do need an omnibus measure to take care of all of the streets,” Bartlett said. “It will go a long way toward succeeding if everyone is included in the repairs.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.