When Ellen Leuenberger takes her baby for a walk outside her Panoramic Way home in southeast Berkeley, she often finds herself maneuvering the stroller in between potholes and bumps so her baby’s head does not bounce around.
“It’s not ideal,” said Leuenberger, who described the street as a “patchwork” of different materials.
If things had gone according to plan, Panoramic Way would be on its way to being a smooth, freshly repaved road, complete with new curbs, gutters and curb cuts, smoother sidewalks, and infrastructure improvements from PG&E and EBMUD. Paving the entire street was part of Berkeley’s capital improvement plan for the 2018 fiscal year.
It didn’t get done. In fact, no city street has been paved in 2018, even though Berkeley had set aside $8.6 million for repairs.
The delay not only means residents will have to endure bumpier roads this year. It also means that the conditions of Berkeley’s 216 miles of roads, not very good to begin with despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, will deteriorate further. That ultimately might make it even more costly to repair the streets.
And the question of how best to address Berkeley’s streets in a time of climate change has led to dissension between the Public Works Commission, a group of volunteer citizens, and the city’s public works department. It spilled into view during a City Council meeting in December 2017 and is likely to be visible again Tuesday when the council discusses the next five-year paving plan.
“Public Works is essentially doing restoration and rehabilitation work,” said Margo Schueler, the immediate past chair of the Public Works Commission told Berkeleyside in a recent interview. “We want them to do re-envisioning and redesigning work.”
“I am incredibly frustrated … many residents were expecting their streets would get paved this year.” — Lori Droste
The city didn’t intentionally set out to skip paving Panoramic Way and 28 other streets in the paving queue. The lapse came from a combination of factors, according to interviews with city officials. There was a high turnover of staff in the public works department, which meant Berkeley didn’t send out paving bids until May, many months later than usual. That meant most of the repaving companies were already committed to other jobs and did not submit bids, according to Matthai Chakko, the city spokesman.
It is also a highly competitive construction market, making prices high, he said. The bid to repave the streets on Panoramic Hill came in close to $5 million, which was about $1 million over the projected budget, according to city documents. The bid to add a bioswale and cistern on Woolsey Street, a green infrastructure improvement that would have reduced stormwater running down the streets, came in $1.3 million over the city engineer’s estimate. Both bids were rejected as being too high. No company bid on paving the rest of Berkeley’s streets, Chakko said.
“I am incredibly frustrated,” said District 8 Councilwoman Lori Droste, who represents the southeastern council district that includes Panoramic Way. “I know many residents were expecting their streets would get paved this year.”
“A serious state of disrepair”
The pavement condition index, or PCI, is a standard measurement for street conditions that rates them from 0 to 100, with 100 being the best. The average PCI in the Bay Area is 67, according to a report put out by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) in September. Dublin has the best index in the region with a PCI of 85.
Berkeley’s streets have an average PCI of 57, according to the MTC, meaning they are “at risk” with “deteriorated pavement requiring immediate attention, including rehabilitative work.” At least 60 street segments in Berkeley have a 0 rating, according to data from Berkeley’s 2017 examination of its streets, given to Berkeleyside by Schueler, who still sits on the Public Works Commission (after an unsuccessful run for the District 1 council seat this past November). About 230 street segments have a PCI of more than 90. MTC requires all Bay Area cities to do a biannual analysis of their streets to receive funding.
Berkeley’s 57 PCI score comes seven years after Ann-Marie Hogan, city auditor, released a scathing report that said: “Berkeley’s streets are in a serious state of disrepair, with the average street at risk of failing.” At that point, Hogan said Berkeley’s PCI was 58 with 64% of its streets, or 134 miles, in need of repair. Nearly 25% had a PCI then of “poor,” and 12% were “failed.” Only 38% of Berkeley’s streets had a PCI of “good” or “better.” Hogan estimated it would cost $54 million to bring the streets up to a “good” level.
The auditor’s report prompted the City Council to aim for a PCI of 75 within five years, or into the midrange of “good.” Voters in 2012 overwhelmingly passed Measure M, a $30 million bond measure for street improvements and green infrastructure projects, with the expectation the city’s PCI rating would rise.
Berkeley did make progress the first few years after Measure M was passed. A report presented to the council in October 2015 said Berkeley was making strides to repair street conditions and add innovative green infrastructure projects around town that improved stormwater quality and reduced pollution. The new money had allowed the city to pave 17 miles of streets in a two-year period for about $14 million, according to the report. That was the same amount the city had paved in a four-year period from 2009 to 2013, city staff said. By the time the Measure M funds were spent, Berkeley estimated it would have paved 51 miles of streets, with 30 of those miles in residential neighborhoods, the report concluded.
“We have tripled the number of streets we have paved in Berkeley as a result of what voters passed,” said Chakko in an interview in late October 2018.
Some of the achievements the midterm Measure M report highlighted included a number of green infrastructure projects aimed at capturing stormwater runoff and removing trash and pollutants before they run into the bay. Excess water on streets contributes to cracking and decay. Berkeley installed a rain garden in Presentation Park, permeable pavers and a cistern at Eunice and Milvia streets, and a bioswale at Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street, among other projects. Hearst Avenue was completely redesigned to better accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists and those who take public transportation, as well as drivers. Many other streets have been resurfaced, overlaid, got new curbs and striping and new signage as a result of Measure M, according to city documents.
“What we’re talking about is one year to the next. Is there an appreciable difference between paving one year and paving double the number of streets next year?”
— Matthai Chakko
The public works department also changed its approach to street maintenance and paving, both by doing more of the work in-house rather than contracting it out, and adopting greener paving techniques, Phil Harrington, the director of the department said in a recent interview. City crews now do more pothole repairs, seal the streets to repair cracks, lay down thermoplastic striping, and use concrete pavement, which can last 50 years, in addition to asphalt, which lasts 20 years, among other innovations.
Berkeley has also done more paving using full depth reclamation (FDR), which is more environmentally friendly than traditional paving. Instead of grinding down the pavement and hauling it away in trucks, FDR is a process that recycles the pavement and uses it as part of the street repair. It reduces the amount of truck hauling, which reduces the release of greenhouse gases, the city said.
Chakko did not give much import to the fact that no streets would be paved in 2018.
“What we’re talking about is one year to the next,” he said. “Is there an appreciable difference between paving one year and paving double the number of streets next year?”
What’s the worst paved street in Berkeley? Tell us and we’ll publish the results:
Public Works Commission Chair: “We are just treading water”
In her 2011 report, however, Hogan warned that putting off repairs would increase the cost of fixing Berkeley’s streets.
“Reconstruction of a failed street can be 32 times the cost of timely maintenance!” she wrote in the audit.
While there have been accomplishments, there is now a recognition that the goal of vastly improving Berkeley’s PCI is not achievable. Most of the Measure M money has been spent (it would have been depleted this year if there had been paving in 2018) as well as millions more from state and regional funds. Yet Berkeley’s PCI is on a downward trajectory.
Ray Yep, the chair of the Public Works Commission and the chair of its subcommittee on repaving, said Berkeley’s PCI is actually 55 and is projected to drop to 52 in five years. Even though the city has spent millions, it has not been enough to improve the overall condition of the city’s streets, according to the city’s five-year paving plan.
“The PCI is not going to go to 65,” said Yep in an interview with Berkeleyside. “The PCI is not going to go to 75. We are just treading water.”
In fact, the city’s stated goal of reaching a PCI of at least 75 seems to be growing ever more elusive.
Berkeley’s 2018-19 Capital Improvement Plan reported that the city would have to spend $100 million on street repairs — plus another $24.5 million to fix sidewalks, curbs and storm drains — to get there. But the city has only budgeted $28.5 million for street repairs for fiscal years 2019-23, and the Measure M funds are going away. On the plus side, the city is slated to get new money from other sources, including SB1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act, and Measure T1, a $100 million bond measure Berkeley voters passed in 2016, on top of other revenue sources, including sales taxes and vehicle registration fees. With the amount of money available, however, Berkeley should reduce its expectations and only aim for a PCI of 65, the report concluded.
The new five-year paving plan that the City Council will consider on Dec. 11 says those costs have already gone up. A consultant, Nichols Construction Engineering, will report that Berkeley will have to spend an additional $10 million to $12 million a year to bring the city’s PCI to 70 by 2028.
The deterioration concerns many City Council members.
“I am confused as to why we are doing so much work and making very little headway,” said northeast Berkeley Councilwoman Susan Wengraf at the December 2017 council meeting where officials reviewed the city’s five-year paving plan. “We got all this money from the voters. We are doing all these streets, but the PCI is going down.”
“We are trying to catch up on decades of deferred maintenance.” — Phil Harrington
Harrington told the council, both verbally and in a report, that the city was still playing catch-up after years of deferred maintenance. Before Measure M, Berkeley only spent about $3.4 million a year to improve streets, far less than was needed, he said. Measure M added about $6 million to that annually, and state and regional funds added even more.
“By maintaining the stability at 57, I think we’ve done an outstanding job,” Harrington told the council. “We are trying to catch up on decades of deferred maintenance. Or there has been no maintenance. If you … pave a street and you don’t maintain it, the acceleration to a point of deterioration is greatly enhanced.”
Harrington urged Wengraf and other council members not to be too focused on the PCI as the number is “very subjective,” and said that “from 0 to 70 is completely arbitrary.”
“This is not a science,” he said. “You don’t plug something in. You don’t go out and measure something. Someone gets in a car, they drive the street. They look at what the rating was last year and they give it another rating.”
One reason the PCI hasn’t improved is that Berkeley has been focusing on the repair of main streets that carry a lot of traffic, rather than the much larger expanse of residential streets, said Harrington. That brings down the city’s average, Harrington said. Berkeley planned to increase its repairs to residential streets in FY 2018. That didn’t happen because no paving was done but, going forward, the city intends to make residential streets a priority, allocating 43% of street funds to neighborhoods, according to city documents.
Another reason the average PCI has not improved, according to Harrington, is that Berkeley has taken a new, holistic approach to improving streets called “complete streets.” It requires that any street repair be geared not just toward cars, but also toward pedestrians and bicyclists and those using wheelchairs. Public transportation must be considered as well.
Harrington said the calculations behind Measure M — made by a program developed by the MTC called StreetSaver — were incorrect, as they assumed all of the $30 million would be going into street repair. That didn’t account for the costs of the “complete streets” approach, he said.
“We don’t just invest 100% in street paving with a goal of raising the PCI,” Harrington told Berkeleyside. “We do a complete street so we are fixing the sidewalks, curbs and gutters, all the ADA transition points, new curb cuts, ADA handicap ramps, all the bicycle improvements, all the storm drain improvements. We are adding trash-capture devices that also help the environmental concerns of this community. So there is a lot going on that, when you consider the original Measure M bond only focused on the paving component.”
Should Berkeley rethink its approach to paving?
Despite the city’s disclaimers, the fact that Berkeley streets continue to deteriorate has prompted some members of the Public Works Commission to push for a reexamination of the way the city approaches repaving.
In December 2017, the commission, made up of volunteers, for the first time ever declined to sign off on the public works department’s five-year paving plan. Commission members said that, even though Berkeley says it has a complete streets approach to street repair, it doesn’t. Berkeley is spending too much of its money doing temporary repairs to the streets, such as putting on asphalt or slurry seal, a cold-mixed asphalt product that covers cracks and slows down deterioration but only lasts a maximum of about five to 10 years. Commission members told the council that the continued focus on just repaving wouldn’t get Berkeley off the treadmill it finds itself on. They asked the city to take a broader and longer look at how it could tie together street repaving, the problem of stormwater run-off and the effects of climate change. Instead of approving a five-year street repaving plan, the city should be doing plans that look out 40 years and use that as a benchmark for what is the most cost effective way of repairing the streets, they said.
“We are falling short of our goals for both PCI and in the efforts to change our streets to reflect long-term cost-effectiveness, long-run durability and environmental sustainability of our streets,” the Public Works Commission wrote to the council. “Asphalt streets are expensive in the long run and cannot be the sole reconstruction solution for all the areas of Berkeley if we are to efficiently and effectively serve all citizens of Berkeley now and in generations to come.”
Schueler said that during most of the last decade, the commission and the public works department have been able to come up with a single set of recommendations on paving for the council. But in 2017, commissioners took a stand in the hopes of signaling that Berkeley needs to adopt a longer term and greener plan, one that better deals with water and climate change.
“Last year was the most disagreement we have ever expressed,” she said. “It was the strongest we have come to saying the Public Works Commission doesn’t support the path the public works department is on.”
For example, even though the city talks about a “complete streets” approach, it has made up its own definition of what that means, one that veers from the industry standards, she said. Berkeley fixes what appears to be broken on the surface, she said, but does not necessarily look at all the users of a street, such as pedestrians, bicyclists and others.
“They are repaving whatever is broken,” said Schueler. “They are not redesigning, they are not redesigning a new bike route, they are not redesigning green infrastructure. What they are doing is taking what is broken and fixing it.”
There are all sorts of new technologies that can be put to use, too, such as permeable concrete and permeable pavement, she said. The entire middle section of Berkeley, from the base of the hills to around San Pablo Avenue, has the type of soil that lends itself to alternative surfaces, she said. The commission asked the City Council to mandate that 15% of the money it allocates for street repaving and repair be used for innovative projects.
Chakko said in the October 2018 interview that the city has to calculate what it can afford to do. There is not an infinite amount of money to do everything, so there are tradeoffs.
The City Council responded to these concerns and voted to approve a measure put forward by Councilwoman Kate Harrison that asked the public works department and the commission to reexamine street repaving through the lens of a lifecycle-cost analysis. That would help Berkeley figure out the true cost of what it would take to do “complete streets” repair that would last decades, not just a few years.
In July, Harrington submitted a report on those goals. He said the city is researching the use of alternative paving materials and ways to incorporate pavement technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The city has also hired a number of consultants with expertise in green infrastructure to advise the city on future projects, he said.
Public Works staff is also testing a new streets modeling program, developed by the UC Davis Department of Civil Engineering, according to the report the commission is presenting to the council. It takes into account different factors about street conditions than StreetSaver, which Berkeley currently uses to develop plans for repaving and rehabilitation. “It includes the ability to evaluate the lifecycle cost of different paving technologies and treatments, sequencing of street surface treatment, cost parameters, and planning period.”
Use of Measure T1 money prompts resignation of public works commissioner
As the public works department and the Public Works Commission geared up to present its new five-year paving plan to council Tuesday, tensions have arisen over the use of the $100 million Measure T1 bond money for street paving. Berkeley plans to use $2.4 million of T1 money in 2018-19 and $6 million during 2019-20 for street projects.
Staff proposed that the city use some — but not all — of the T1 money to apply asphalt and slurry seal on streets to repair cracks, a short-term approach that led Larry Henry, who served on the Public Works Commission for 11 years, to resign.
“You wouldn’t take a 40-year bond out to paint your house that will last 20 years.”
— Larry Henry
While advocating for Measure T1, Henry said he and others garnered the support of the Sierra Club by stating that the money would only be used for long-term projects. The city is going back on that pledge, said Henry.
“You wouldn’t take a 40-year bond out to paint your house that will last 20 years,” he said. “They have expanded the number of streets they are using slurry seal on with 40-year bond money. That is so wrong.”
Henry isn’t alone in that view. The commission said in its report for Tuesday’s council meeting it is concerned that long-term bond funds will be used for short-term repairs.
“The PWC recommends that bond funds be used only for work that will last for at least as long as the duration of the bond repayment period,” the commission wrote in its report. “This would include street reconstruction work. Maintenance work, such as slurry seals, should be paid with General Funds.”
Some of the projects that will use T1 funds are designed, however, “to provide multiple benefits,” such as repaving University Avenue west of I-80, said Schueler. That “involves significant road realignment and reconstruction,” she said. The commission supports those projects.
Panoramic Hill will be resurfaced in 2019
The good news is that Berkeley put out bids for paving and green infrastructure projects in October, and got back some acceptable bids, according to city documents. The City Council will vote on accepting some of those bids on Tuesday.
Ghilotti Construction Company returned with a bid of $4.2 million to redo Panoramic Hill, about $780,000 less than the bid Pacific Infrastructure Construction submitted in May, according to city documents.
Gallagher & Burk, Inc., bid $3.2 million to pave 1.7 miles of streets, according to city documents. The contractor will also build new curb ramps, curbs, sidewalks, drainage inlets and pipes, gutters and street signage. It will also do striping.
However, no company bid on adding a bioswale and cistern on Woolsey Street, according to city documents.
These projects will use up the remaining money from Measure M. But Berkeley has a number of other ways to pay for street repairs going forward. There’s money from Berkeley’s capital improvement fund, money from Measure B, Measure BB, Measure F, a vehicle registration fee, funds from SB1, the Road Repair and Accountability Act, the state transportation tax, grants and funds from Measure T1.
Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín sent Berkeleyside the following statement after this story was published:
As someone who lives on a street with a very low PCI, I share the frustration that has been expressed by many constituents regarding the conditions of our roads and the fact that we could not proceed with paving projects this year. It came as a surprise to the Council when we were informed by staff. It is unfortunate that a culmination of multiple factors has led to this situation, and we are rebidding and will [be] moving forward with paving projects in 2019. The funds have not been re appropriated and will be spent on our paving plan. It is imperative that we make our streets safe and accessible for all, including for people such as myself who do not drive but instead walk, bike, and/or use public transit.
I want to thank the voters of Berkeley for their generous support of previous bonds to address our aging infrastructure, in addition to their overwhelming endorsement of Measure R. This advisory measure will move forward Vision 2050, which will set up the framework for creating a bold plan to address our infrastructure needs in an environmentally cognizant way over the next 30 years. The defeat of Prop 6 will enable us to secure more funds in the near future for street repairs.