Berkeley is moving forward with a plan to shift the focus of its street paving work from major thoroughfares to smaller residential roads, while also establishing a new “Equity Zone” made up of historically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
But as they make the case to voters for a ballot measure to fund street repairs, officials warn their current budget won’t be enough to stop pavement citywide from deteriorating further.
Members of the City Council voted last week to approve only the first three years of a proposed five-year paving plan, as well as an extensive update to Berkeley’s street maintenance policy. The move is meant to ensure the city meets deadlines for paving projects in the near term — and avoids a repeat of 2018, when delays putting out bids meant Berkeley didn’t pave any streets — while also allowing officials to revise their plans if the ballot measure passes this November, giving them a bigger budget to spread around.
“This is a starting point,” Mayor Jesse Arreguín said. “This is not the solution.”
The plan calls for spending $26 million over the 2023 through 2025 fiscal years, repaving 9.5 total miles of Berkeley streets.
Public Works Director Liam Garland said the city would need to nearly double its paving budget, spending an additional $8 million per year, just to keep streets at their current Pavement Condition Index rating of “at-risk.”
“That PCI will drop over the next five years” if the city maintains its current funding levels, Garland told the council at a meeting Tuesday night. “There’s nothing that the policy or the plans can do to affect that fundamental dynamic.”
Garland, Arreguín and others contend a solution to Berkeley’s paving woes is the measure they are aiming to put before voters this November, which could raise half a billion dollars or more for local infrastructure and affordable housing, with an emphasis on streets. But some voters may balk at the cost of the measure, which would increase homeowners’ property tax bills by hundreds of dollars each year.
“With the amount of money that we’re paying in property tax, it’s ridiculous that our streets are as poor as they are,” said resident Dale Rose, who told the council during public comments that it should prioritize street repair funding with money in the city’s existing budget. “It’s there, you’re just not putting it in the right place.”
Public works staff created the new “Equity Zone” as part of their rewrite of the city’s paving policy, which was last updated more than a decade ago. Using measures such as median income, the share of residents who have a disability and historic maps showing which parts of Berkeley were “redlined” by the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation, city officials identified a collection of South and West Berkeley neighborhoods they wanted to target for repairs. The policy sets the goal of bringing streets in the zone up to a “good” PCI score sooner than the rest of the city.
The Equity Zone is set to receive 22.7% of the city’s paving budget over the three years the council approved Tuesday, a smaller share than the area would have gotten under the full five-year plan, 36%.
The paving plan’s more controversial change was its move to dedicate nearly all of the street repair budget to projects on smaller “residential” or “collector” streets. Less than $1 million will be spent on heavily used “arterial” streets over the next three years — a distribution that led to a split between city staff, which recommended the focus on smaller streets, and Berkeley’s Public Works Commission, which endorsed a separate plan directing more of the paving budget to arterials.
With limited resources, Public Works Commissioner Jackie Erbe told the council that members wanted to ensure the city’s arterials, which include major bus and bike routes as well as heavy car traffic, don’t deteriorate.
“We specifically looked for the option that served the most people and provided the greatest value to the city,” Erbe said.
But for the next three years, at least, the council sided with Garland and his department’s recommendation to focus on smaller neighborhood streets, reasoning that residents often want to see improvement on the street outside their front door.
“It feels like we’re making this Sophie’s Choice … between residential streets and arterials,” Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani said. “We need to get to a place where we don’t need to make that choice.”