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This week in potholes: Great Pave continues, vigilantes chip in, too

on October 4, 2019

A group of construction workers stand at the intersection of 83rd and A Street on fresh, sweltering, sparkling asphalt. They flip and twirl rakes into place before heaving their full weight onto them to smooth the road for future pedestrians, bikers and drivers. Sweat drips, the men yell instructions to each other, and the hard work continues, punctuated by an occasional smile, pat on the back and glug of water. Oakland’s Department of Transportation hired these workers as part of The Great Pave, a $100 million public infrastructure project that aims to equitably repair and repave streets across the city. 

Oakland residents have long complained of potholes deep enough to rattle commutes and damage transmissions. In 2016, voters approved Measure KK, which earmarked $350 million in bond funding to repair roads over a 10-year period. 

Prior to the initiative, a street in Oakland on average would be repaved every 85 years. The cycle of neglect resulted in Oakland’s street quality ranking 98 out of 109 Bay Area cities, according to an Oakland Public Works fact-sheet. “We dug ourselves a pretty big hole,” Department of Transportation director Ryan Russo said of the backlog of road repairs.

The Great Pave will use $100 million from Measure KK to repave 100 miles Oakland’s roads over the next three years. (The Department of Transportation released a map of the streets to be paved as part of the project.) Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf kicked off The Great Pave at a news conference last month that took place on a stretch of repaved road on Harold Street in the Fruitvale neighborhood. “Oakland has not done this level of road repairs in modern history,” Schaaf said. 

Russo agrees that the plan is significant. “We’ve been building and ramping up our teams and our ability to pave streets,” he said. “This plan is really an exciting milestone.” 

But given the city’s extensive pothole problem, many residents are still waiting for repairs, or wondering why their street is not on the transportation department’s map. Gregg Loos, a resident of the Oakmore neighborhood in the Oakland hills, said that he voted for Measure KK, but expected the city to be more responsive to residents’ needs. Loos said there are gaping potholes, no sidewalks and no streetlights around his house. 

He contacted the Department of Transportation and his representative, District 4 Councilmember Sheng Thao, about roads in need of repair around his house, but, he said, no one clearly answered why roads near him would not be repaired. “It’s a very opaque system,” Loos said. 

“I pay my taxes,” Loos continued. “The minimum is if we have a deficient road, it should be fixed. I don’t care where in the city you are.” 

Loos would like to know what will happen once the three-year The Great Pave ends. “Once the three-year plan closes, what will happen the next two years after?” he asked. Or, he continued, “how about planning out 10 years?”

Russo said city officials have taken pains to be transparent in making decisions about which streets get paved first. The Great Pave prioritizes repairing small neighborhood streets that have been neglected under past city plans, and streets that serve “underserved communities,” such as people of color and low-income households. 

Speaking of the concern for equity, Russo said “If someone pays 40 to 50 percent of their income to their rent, if they break an axel or bend a rim in one of our potholes, that can be lifechanging.” 

“On the other hand,” he continued, “if you’re not severely rent-burdened, breaking a rim or an axel in one of our potholes is frustrating, but you have the ability to file a claim with the city at the time and to weather that storm.” 

Russo said he understands that many Oakland residents want certain roads repairs. The bottom line, Russo said, is that “it’s both costly and a terrible human impact for people to lose their homes or their jobs because of the conditions of our streets.”

The Great Pave is a down payment on mending Oakland’s infrastructure problems, Russo said. For Russo, that means the federal government should also step up to help fix infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, there are two Oaklanders who aren’t waiting. They call themselves the Pothole Vigilantes, and they got so frustrated they took action into their own hands. Eric—who prefers not to use his last name due to the legally ambiguous nature of his hobby—and his friend taught themselves how to fill potholes. “We’re concerned and annoyed citizens,” he said. 

They filled their first pothole on Moss Avenue and Harrison Street in April, he said, and the public’s reaction was overwhelmingly positive. “We literally had people on their balcony cheering us on,” he said.

Since then, the Pothole Vigilantes collected over $13,000 on a GoFundMe fundraiser. They also host monthly meetings at which they hand out free asphalt and tampers so that other locals can fix potholes, too. So far, Eric estimates, the group has filled around 200 potholes. 

“It’s better than nothing, so we’re happy,” Eric said of The Great Pave. But he said he also wishes that the city would have two teams: one filling potholes and one repaving roads, noting the two aren’t mutually exclusive. 

Eric posts before and after photos of the potholes they fill to a Pothole Vigilantes Instagram account, and photo sharing is part of why his group is successful. The city could benefit from a similar approach, he said. “Why isn’t there a way to see how many potholes they fix everyday?” he asked. “We got a lot of popularity because we showed people what we are doing.” 

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