Op-ed: How come my street isn’t getting fixed?

How come my street isn’t getting fixed?

Since Berkeley’s Five-Year Street paving plan came to Council November 18 (item 39), a lot of people have asked “how come my block isn’t on the list? It’s in major disrepair.” The answer is in our 2011 Streets audit; we provided a road map for getting the most bang for the buck for every dollar spent on streets. Repair costs increase exponentially when maintenance is deferred. This means the City needs to time its maintenance of a street in good condition to just before the street needs more expensive repairs, and to time its repair of a street in poor condition to just before the street fails and needs total reconstruction.

Reconstructing a failed street cost the City well over $1 million per linear mile in 2011. Compare that to $36,000 for preventive maintenance (slurry sealing) and to $126,000 to $309,000 for repair (overlay) for a street in fair to poor condition.

Reconstruction costs can be even greater than a $1 million per mile when unexpected problems arise. Public Works reports the challenges it had to overcome regarding street construction in their upcoming December 9 report to Council, Allston Way Permeable Paver Demonstration Project (item 13). Contractors hired to do the work discovered substandard AT&T conduits and abandoned utility lines during excavation. This increased the City’s cost for the project, which went well beyond street reconstruction to include a demonstration project for future Bay-friendly drainage features.

Our streets audit helped the City identify how to use data-based decision making to drive its plan for efficient and sustainable street repairs and reconstruction projects. This data-based approach involves knowing just when to expect that each specific section of a street is getting close to ratcheting up its repair cost from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, or needing reconstruction costing more than a million dollars a mile. That allows management to schedule maintenance, repairs, and reconstruction on a “just-in-time” basis.

We found that if funding levels didn’t increase, the City’s unfunded needs for street repair would grow by 70 percent – from $41.7 million to $70.8 million – in five years. We were able to evaluate the City’s Pavement Condition Index (PCI) and forecast the rate of street deterioration and future liabilities (and costs), because the Metropolitan Transportation Commission requires Bay Area governments to maintain data on street conditions using the StreetSaver pavement management program. To determine the PCI score, an inspector visually inspects, measures, and records the condition of each segment of street. We performed our own inspection of some of the streets, to confirm that the data in StreetSaver was reliable.

City staff are using the StreetSaver data to plan the work, and to report back to the public about what has been accomplished. It’s important to keep an eye on the actual and projected condition of the streets – both the PCI and the rate of decrease in the unfunded backlog.

You can see why both Berkeley’s 2012 Measure M and Alameda County’s recent Measure BB funding are needed to prevent the city from digging a deeper hole of future unfunded liabilities. The wear and tear on heavily trafficked streets increases the future cost of fixing a failed street to 32 times the cost of timely maintenance. Those costs are likely somewhat higher in today’s dollars, and will be even higher in the future.

Based on our 2011 numbers, the City needs the funds from Measures M and BB to keep its unfunded need from rapidly increasing. In the Auditor’s November 18th letter to Council, we reiterated our 2011 finding that, with funding at $12.5 million a year, the City’s PCI would have moved to “good” and its unfunded liability reduced to $19 million at the end of five years. If only $10 million a year were invested, the City’s PCI would be 68 (at the high end of “fair”), and leave an unfunded liability of $41 million.

The City is balancing the need to invest some of the Measure M funds in projects that address our unfunded stormwater/watershed needs as well as the need to slow the deterioration of our streets. If streets aren’t repaired “just in time”, there will be less money available for streets and for watershed improvements in the future. You can learn more about the City’s unfunded plans for tackling watershed needs in its 2011 Watershed Plan on the 10/30/12 Council agenda.

Our streets audit gave us the opportunity to explore a long term and highly visible issue that matters to everyone who lives and works here. Thanks to Berkeley voters, and the Public Works staff and commission, we can see the results of our performance audit and know that, together, we made a difference.

Read more about street paving issues in past Berkeleyside coverage.

Related:
In potholed city, which Berkeley streets will be paved? (02.21.14)

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Ann-Marie Hogan has been the Auditor for the City of Berkeley since 1994. The Auditor's Office provides independent oversight of City operations; its mission is to be a catalyst for improving City government.