Opinion: Five sad truths about Measure T1 and why Berkeley should care

Politicians sold the $100M infrastructure bond as one that would incorporate public input and be used for the most critical of projects. Neither of those things is happening.

Most everyone understands what Measure T1 is – the badly needed bond measure voters passed in 2016 authorizing $100 million of well-planned investments in critical Berkeley capital projects to be selected after extensive community input and on the basis of best engineering practices. Unfortunately, the only accurate parts of the above understanding are the dollar amount and the critical need. Here are some of the hard and sad truths about T1 expenditures as they are shaping-up:

Most of the initial expenditures (Phase I totaling approximately $32 Million) are already allocated to what are essentially regular on-going operational expenses. Indeed, at least $14 million is to be spent to complete the projects promised under the now exhausted Measure M fund, passed in 2012. Yes, a lot is allocated to repaving badly deteriorated streets but this is merely relabeling recurring operational expenses as capital programs.

The balance of the expenditures of the $100 million are also effectively committed already to what could best be characterized as a grab-bag of projects chosen without public input and certainly without any connection to a comprehensive and coordinated plan.

Despite the extensive self-congratulation by the city, the claimed community outreach program was totally cosmetic in intent and in result. The conventional truth of municipal politics is that the people with the information and the positional power control the flow of bond monies. That is, the city staff controls the gold. I do not have space here to review the history illustrating this truth so I will just offer a list – Measure A, Measure S, Measure B, Measure AA, Measure I, Measure M, and now Measure T1 and soon Measure T2 and then Measure T3.

Speaking of city staff, very high turnover in an already somewhat demoralized public works staff, invites the question as to whether the city should not delay T1 investment in infrastructure until its own engineering infrastructure is in a place so it at least has a fighting chance of doing a good job.

At a minimum, the city should delay proceeding with any T1 expenditures until a separate Capital Programs Management function is in place, preferably with an independent program manager reporting to both the City Manager and the City Council. Remember that the total capital investment required of Berkeley over the next decade is, by the City’s own estimates (guesses at best) exceeds $500 million. It seems a bit of an understatement to suggest that maybe the first investment should be in expanding the capacity of Berkeley to plan and manage a mere half a billion dollar investment.

The city’s engineering and planning capacities are at best obsolete and, more accurately, totally inadequate to the task of efficiently planning and executing major capital programs. To list just a few deficiencies – no separate capital budgeting systems; obsolete procurement processes (no design-build capability bidding, no Vickery auction experience, etc.); no technology transfer facilities; no design review processes; no integrated geographical database systems, essentially a completely broken city financial management system (FMS); etc. In short, no best practices of any kind and in some cases, no practices at all.

The portrait of T1 as a well-planned execution of a list of critically important, well-chosen projects based on transparent community input seems somewhat faded. Perhaps there is another portrait of Dorian Gray stored at the civic center which reflects the emerging reality of T1.

As to why Berkeley residents should care, I merely note that the preliminary planning (if you can call a conspiracy a plan) for T2 and then T3 is already underway. Eventually, Berkeley will run out of other people’s money and by then it will not even have any of its own. Actually, in an actuarial sense, we have already run out of money. But that is another topic for another day.

Robert Krumme is a structural engineer and researcher specializing in seismic design, a founder of the award-winning Seismic Technical Advisory Panel, and a former member of various Berkeley commissions including the public works commission.