Op-ed: Berkeley’s streets continue to deteriorate despite millions spent from Measure M

Berkeley voters must demand greater fiscal accountability on how the city spends bond monies.

Pavement distress on Sunset Lane in February 2017. Photo: Isabelle Gaston

Despite an infusion of tens of millions of dollars over the last several years, Berkeley roads have continued to deteriorate. And the way the City has used the money – most of it from Measure M, a bond measure passed in 2012 – portends poorly for the $100 million infrastructure bond measure, Measure T1, voters adopted in November.

Background: Measure M

In 2011, Ann Marie Hogan, the city auditor, gave a report to the City Council on the City’s failing streets.  In the report she wrote, “If we can’t afford to fix our streets now, how are we going to be able to afford to fix them in the future when the cost will be millions more?”

Hogan described the City’s streets as “at risk” with a Pavement Condition Index (PCI) of 58. The PCI is a widely-used metric to assess pavement condition. Its scale is from 0-100. A score from 0-24 is considered “Failed;” 25-49 “Poor;” 50-59 “At Risk;” 60- 69 “Fair;” 70-79 “Good;” and 80-100 “Very Good/Excellent.”

The auditor noted that more than 62% of Berkeley’s streets needed to be resurfaced/reconstructed at an estimated cost of $54 million. She offered several recommendations to improve the PCI, including a bond measure.

One year later, in November 2012, Berkeley voters approved a $30 million bond measure (Measure M) to improve the condition of City streets and install green infrastructure.

With the infusion of $30 million, the city manager set the desired PCI of streets to be 66 to 70 by the end of the five-year Measure M implementation period. It was acknowledged that achieving a PCI of 75 (“good”) was not possible because $7.5 million of the $30 million would be spent on green infrastructure.

In October 2015, the Manager of Engineering, Sean Rose, gave a positive mid-program (2.5 years) update to the City Council on Measure M. He stated that “we started out with 58 and are now 65.” (see Figure 1).

Figure 1:
Source: City of Berkeley

This struck me as odd because Mr. Rose’s words conflicted with the data on the slide which showed a PCI of 62 (not 65) in 2015. He went on to say, “This is the positive trend we would certainly expect to see with the expenditure of Measure M funding” and “It may not on its face seem like a significant increase, but it really is.”

Eight months later, in June 2016, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) published the PCI for each city in the Bay Area for the year 2015. The overall PCI for Bay Area streets was 66. For Berkeley, it was 58.

Because of the discrepancy (58 vs 65), I emailed Mr. Rose for clarification. Unfortunately, he had left the City of Berkeley for a new position with the City of Woodside. I then contacted the new supervising engineer, Tracy Clay. She told me the PCI was 57 for 2015, consistent with the MTC.

So, after almost four years – and a tripling of money available per year for street improvements – what is the PCI of Berkeley’s roads now?

I contacted the Public Works Department in January and they said that as of the end of 2016, the PCI remains at 57 (Figure 2). In other words, despite tens of millions of dollars of new spending, the roads have deteriorated since the auditor’s report in 2011.

Hoping for an explanation, I contacted the City Auditor regarding the decreased PCI but she had no comment.  I also contacted Phil Harrington, the Director of Public Works, but he has yet to respond to my inquiry.

Figure 2:
Source for Actual PCI: Public Works Department emails (June 2016 and January 2017)

Mr. Rose had also stated in his presentation that by spending $30 million on roads now that the City would avoid an extra $15 million in repair costs. I am not an engineer but this strikes me as dubious given the PCI has declined since the inception of Measure M and a report in late 2016 had the City’s unfunded paving needs as $120 million.

Unfinished Measure M Projects now funded under Measure T1 – Where did the Money Go?

What is the purpose of this 0p-ed besides stating that Measure M has not, thus far, lived up to its campaign promises of improving our roads?

First, to inform residents that there are many Measure M projects (roads and green infrastructure) that were approved by the City Council but will not be completed as planned under Measure M. Rather, these projects will now either be designed or completed with Measure T1 revenue.

Second, to alert residents that Measure T1 may suffer the same disappointing results as Measure M unless strict financial accounting measures, far better management, and well-defined measurable objectives and timelines are put in place – now.

There have already been a number of staff meetings (starting several months before the election) to decide what projects to pursue with Phase 1 of the T1 bond proceeds ($32 million). There have also been several poorly advertised commission meetings.

From my perspective, Measure T1 is off to a poor start.

Staff’s recommendations (from its T1 Project Team) as put forth in the City Manager’s Dec.r 22nd memo do not adequately reflect the community’s wishes and needs. Staff prepared this memo without any input from the commissions or the public. Therefore, the Dec. 22nd memo should be rejected outright as a “starting point” because it did not follow the process that citizens were assured Measure T1 would follow.

Streets

  • Staff has proposed to spend $5 million on paving three miles of streets and repairing adjacent infrastructure in Phase 1.
  • With the exception of five blocks of paving of Ward Street, the streets that Staff are proposing for Measure T1 for 2018 to 2021 were originally planned to be paved with Measure M funds in 2016 and 2017 (Table 1). University was also to be paved under Measure M but now it will only be “designed” with Measure T1 (see footnote below).
  • Because Phase 1 occurs over a span of three years (2018 to 2021), this will result in only one mile of paving per year with T1 revenue. This would neither increase the PCI nor improve the drivability/bike-ability of our roads (the City has >200 miles of streets).

Note: The only sidewalks to be repaired in Phase 1 will be those along the streets listed above.* This 0.3 miles of paving of University was supposed to be completed with Measure M money at a cost of $1.3 million dollars in FY2018. It is now on the list of “design only” Measure T1 projects at a cost of $0.5 million. An actual completion date is not specified but a conservative estimate is at least five years from now (Phase 2, starting 2022). How the $1.3 million of Measure M money was spent, if not on University, is not clear from available documents.

Green Infrastructure

  • Six out of the seven green infrastructure projects that were planned to be completed with Measure M funding in 2017 and 2018 (and that Council approved on 10/27/2015) are now going to be funded with $1 million of Measure T1 revenue in years 2018 to 2021..
  • Of these six projects, only two will actually be completed with T1 revenue; four will be “designed” by the end of 2021 (not completed). If these four could have been completed with Measure M funding, why can’t they be completed now with T1 funding?

Sources:
Oct. 10, 2015, special City Council meeting
Public Works CommissionSummary

  • Despite a commendable public outreach process driven by the Public Works Commission for Measure M, Berkeley’s streets have not improved since the five-year $30 million bond was approved in 2012; as of the end of 2016, the PCI, an objective measurement of pavement condition, has declined. It is unclear why, and neither the City Auditor nor Director of Public Works would care to comment.
  • Six out of the seven green infrastructure projects that were to be completed in 2017 and 2018 with Measure M funding are now on the Measure T1 list. However, only two of these six projects are slated to be completed by 2021; the rest will be “designed,” resulting in a delay of at least five years (assuming they are completed in Phase 2, 2022).
  • Over $6 million worth of projects (streets and green infrastructure) that were planned to be completed with Measure M (and were approved by Council) are now on the Measure T1 list (Tables 1 and 2). Whether other streets or green infrastructure projects were completed in lieu of the ones previously planned with Measure M funding is unverifiable with available public documents.
  • City residents have repeatedly voted for taxes to improve our streets and green infrastructure. Six separate taxes are collected by the City to pave our streets: Measure M; Measure T1; Measure B; Measure BB (which recently added $1.3 million/year to the paving budget); property tax (general fund); and gas tax. Discussions at recent Commissions’ meetings indicate that City Staff are planning another bond measure for 2018; in other words, a seventh tax to pave our streets.

Berkeley residents must demand stricter financial accountability before Measure T1 suffers the same fate as Measure M. At a recent City Council meeting, the Mayor and City Council discussed providing financial oversight of Measure T1 spending on a quarterly basis. This would be fiscally prudent and greatly welcome.Finally, because the train has already left the station with regard to how Measure T1 revenue might be spent, it is critically important that the people of Berkeley express their priorities soon – lest City Staff define them for us.

Isabelle Gaston is the president of the Northeast Berkeley Association.