The winter’s deluge of rain led to over 130 requests to fix potholes in Berkeley this January, more than during any other month in at least 13 years, according to a Berkeleyside analysis of data from the city’s non-emergency service line.
When it rains, water runs into cracks and holes in the road’s surface, and the road deteriorates.
“Water is asphalt’s worst enemy,” Joy Brown, operations manager in the city’s public works department, explained in an email to Berkeleyside. “Small holes turn into big ones. Cracks and ruts turn into base failures.”
California’s rainy season has always wrought havoc on the roads. In Berkeley, the 10 worst pothole months on record have come in winter or spring. But this year’s storms brought over 20 inches of rain in December and January — and with the rain, a record-breaking number of pothole complaints. (Berkeley’s 311 complaint log dates back to 2010.)
Unlike Oakland, which has struggled to quickly fill potholes after the storm, leading to frustrated residents and dangerous road conditions, Berkeley was mostly able to keep up with pothole-patching demand.
Berkeley street maintenance crews managed to fill nearly all the new potholes, according to city data. In January, each pothole took an average of a day and a half to fill, though there may have been a few repeat pothole complaints.
That doesn’t mean Berkeley’s streets are all smooth riding.
Two years ago, 40% of Berkeley’s streets were in fair or poor condition, according to a 2021 pavement management report. Filling potholes puts a band-aid on glaring issues, but doesn’t address the underlying problems. Streets covered in patched potholes can still be a bumpy ride.
Plus, poor pavement, riddled with seams and ditches, is more susceptible to developing potholes, especially during heavy rains. “The worse the PCI [pavement condition index], the more potholes, and vice versa,” Brown wrote. In effect, potholes beget potholes.
During the winter storms, many streets that developed the most potholes had poor quality pavement to start — Rose Street between Sacramento Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way had a PCI of 21 out of 100; Addison Street near San Pablo Avenue scored a 16 PCI.
Streets in the hills, near UC Berkeley and in the Elmwood emerged relatively unscathed from the storms, while West Berkeley, Southwest Berkeley and parts of North Berkeley were hit the hardest. Many of the city’s most flood-prone areas are in the flats, especially in West Berkeley, according to Berkeley’s 2011 watershed management plan
Potholes are dangerous to drivers and cyclists
Potholes can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles, unexpectedly swerving or forcing vehicles to stop suddenly. The “slingshot effect” of the suspension going into a pothole can also ruin a car and injure anyone in it. For pedestrians and cyclists, stepping into holes can cause serious injuries.
Streets with poor pavement quality can have the same dangerous effect.
Hazel Lutzker, the 12-year-old daughter of safe streets advocate Liza Lutzker, tore her ACL when she fell off her bike riding over a pothole while heading to Longfellow Middle School. At the time, Liza was attending a meeting to advocate for routes to school to be prioritized.
The tear required major surgery, months of rehabilitation and forced Hazel to stay home from middle school social activities, all of which took a toll on the pre-teen. “I had told my parents many times that I do not like that pavement on Derby. Somebody’s going to hurt themselves,” Hazel said. Then, it happened to her.
Liza blames the poor pavement quality for her daughter’s injury. The segment of Derby Street leading to Longfellow had a PCI of 20 in 2021.
“It wasn’t an accident that it happened,” Lutzker said. “It was a result of poor planning and poor ability to really get folks in Berkeley behind the idea that our streets need to be safe for people to use.”
Berkeley crews use temporary paving solutions to patch potholes, some of which are more durable than others.
Permanent paving mixes, which can include hot asphalt, cement, tack oil and other material, last a long time but can only be laid down when the ground is dry, making them unfit for emergency patches during storms.
During the storm, Berkeley crews used EZ Street Mix, a cold mix that still works in wet conditions. This mix tends to last a year or two, according to Brown, while the hot asphalt mix they use can last for many years, depending on traffic and underlying road conditions.
Filling potholes is substantially less expensive than street paving, the cost of which can quickly add up to millions. It costs the city between $50 and several hundred dollars to do a cold-mix fill of a pothole, depending on its size and the underlying street conditions.
But filling potholes is only “a temporary measure,” Brown wrote in an email. “If Berkeley had much more funding for paving, the City would have fewer potholes.”
Berkeley plans to increase funding for road repairs by $5 million in 2023 and $8 million in 2024, which will bring the total paving budget to $15 million in the 2024 fiscal year.
Measure L, a $650 million bond measure, would have allocated more funds to pave the city’s streets, but the bond failed, with critics calling it too open-ended and arguing that the city should have made better use of previous funds intended for street paving. A new infrastructure measure is likely to be on the ballot in 2024.
How to submit a 311 request for pothole fixes
When the city of Berkeley crews fix potholes, they are usually responding to maintenance requests from the city’s non-emergency line, though they also fix some potholes proactively, especially on main thoroughfares and bike lanes.
Bike East Bay, the local mobility advocacy nonprofit, maintains a list of resources on its website to help people submit service requests. Robert Prinz, the advocacy director, occasionally runs webinars to help people improve their chances of getting their service requests heard.
“Go out and report a bunch of potholes and increase your chances of getting some stuff fixed. And then if something doesn’t get fixed, keep at it,” Prinz said.
He said that besides reporting a lot of potholes, which he says is the first and most important thing to do, there are three other things people should focus on to increase their chances of service request success.
The first is to upload photos of the pothole with every request, allowing maintenance crews to more easily recognize it when they show up. A separate photo of the street environment surrounding the hole is also helpful.
Second, people can spray paint the perimeter of the hole with a water-based bright color paint before taking a picture. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it will make the hole easier to find and help drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians avoid falling into it.
Third, people can use the “Watch Area” functionality of SeeClickFix. There, they can follow Bike East Bay’s watch area, create their own, or follow anyone else’s, all of which will automatically send reports to your email whenever there’s a change in a service request status. People can also ensure that their own requests show up in Watch Area feeds by using related keywords.
Featured photo: A 2019 photo of a pothole on Oregon Street that appeared after heavy winter rains. Credit: Citizen reporter