A street east of Lake Merritt with broken asphalt and large potholes. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

After decades of neglect left Oakland’s roads riddled with potholes and other damage, the city started using more than $100 million in Measure KK bond funds to make repairs. Starting three years ago, projects with lofty titles like The Great Pave and The Road Repair Blitz have set paving records by patching more than 109 miles of streets.

Oakland’s dangerous roadways

This article is part of our special series looking into traffic and pedestrian safety in the city. Read more.

But some residents still don’t feel the city is doing enough to fix the streets. Out of the more than 200 people who have taken The Oaklandside’s dangerous roadways survey, about 15% say road conditions still make them feel unsafe. 

Naru Satir Kwina, a Fruitvale resident, said potholes in their neighborhood make it impossible to ride a bike. Hillmont therapist Deah Schwartz fears buses and cars careening out of control after they hit broken cement in front of her house. And Aaron Reaven said he is often forced to dangerously swerve around road damage and into oncoming traffic when driving on 34th Street in Mosswood. 

No one we talked to from our survey said they trusted the city to quickly fix damaged roads. Making problems worse is the weather. After intense rainfall in December, we heard from more people who were worried about potholes growing in size. One person wondered whether the city has a plan, or the budget to deal with emergency repairs. 

We looked into it and found that Oakland does have a plan to make emergency road repairs. There’s money in the city’s budget for this. But potholes often aren’t categorized as emergencies, and sometimes it’s not even the city that’s responsible for fixing them.

Wanting to understand the city’s road repair system better, we reached out to current and former employees of the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Works to find out what actually happens when residents request road fixes, why repairs take a long time to happen, and what the city could do to improve its services. 

Breaking down the road repair process

The first thing to understand about Oakland’s roads is that there is no single government agency responsible for fixing them.

Potholes and other problems caused by broken water mains are the responsibility of the East Bay Municipal Utility District. PG&E takes care of downed power lines in streets. Collisions are responded to by fire, police, and county emergency medical services. And for road repairs on local streets that are also state highways, like International Boulevard, the state’s department of transportation, Caltrans, may also get involved. The rest is the city’s responsibility.

Former Oakland Public Works Director Wlad Wlassosky gave one example: In March 2018 a sinkhole in the road caused the city to shut down the Posey Tube to Alameda. OakDOT’s road maintenance crews worked to patch the hole while Caltrans shut down the tunnel.

Determining whether a road repair is needed, and whether it’s an emergency or not, is the Department of Transportation’s job, in conjunction with the city’s Public Works Department.

The OAK311 app doesn’t classify potholes as emergencies that need to be immediately fixed.

How does OakDOT define emergencies? In its latest Capital Improvement Project plan, the city listed five types of emergencies that its crews will respond to when reported. They are: downed signs, traffic signal outages, flooding, sewer overflow, and fallen trees or branches.

In its most recent budget, Oakland set aside $1.5 million per year to complete emergency road repairs. According to OakDOT, emergencies could include things like “stabilizing collapsed roadways, building retaining walls along downhill lanes, completing backfill and compaction, and repaving to reopen affected roadways.” OakDOT can also draw on emergency federal funding in the case of major disasters like floods and earthquakes.

When the city receives a call from a resident or a tip through its OAK311 app that a road needs to be repaired, a city maintenance crew of two or three people is available at any time and is sent out. According to Oakland crew veteran Dwight McElroy, the scope of the work this crew faces can vary, from setting up traffic control to protect other workers while they do a job, to removing branches from the roadway. 

But not everything is an emergency

Not all of the calls the city gets about busted roads lead to repairs. This is one of the biggest reasons residents can become frustrated with the condition of city streets.

For example, McElroy, who also serves as the chief steward of the city employee union SEIU Local 1021, told the Oaklandside that pieces of cars left after a collision often remain in the middle of the road for more than ten hours before they are picked up because they don’t fit the definition of an emergency. 

“[The city] doesn’t call anybody from our crew right away to come [in those situations]. They don’t call us to sweep up all the car parts and the glass,” McElroy said. “In other cities, like San Leandro, after the police clear a collision they call the maintenance crew to make it safe.” 

McElroy said the degree of danger should be determined first by whether damage or debris is obstructing pedestrians and bicyclists, second vehicles, as they can cause another collision if they swerve, and finally whether it could cause damage to vehicles.

If you see a roadway emergency call 911 or 510-615-5566 to report it, or submit an OAK311 tip.

Warren Logan, OakDOT’s former policy director of mobility and interagency relations, said most cities don’t have a standard definition of an emergency road situation that needs to be immediately repaired. Most of the time, if a hole in the road or a downed tree blocking traffic is determined to be a danger to Oaklanders, a crew will be sent. But a lot of the time, they are not sent because it might not be possible to quickly fix an issue. That means that what the city defines as an emergency is often not the same as what a resident defines as one.

Asphalt and road maintenance expert Ramez Hajj, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told The Oaklandside that most municipalities tend to prefer road fixes that are part of larger infrastructure upgrades instead of piecemeal solutions. When they do go out to fix individual potholes, city crews will use a few techniques that don’t take a lot of time and end up eroding quicker, such as the “throw-and-go” technique of filling holes with asphalt, patching it, and moving on to the next one. 

How staff shortages affect services

The city of Oakland told The Oaklandside in a statement that using the OAK311 app is still the “appropriate mechanism to report concerns about damaged roads and infrastructure.”

But there’s a limited number of OakDOT and Public Works staff who respond to these messages, said Logan. They often work overtime, and they tend to triage problems because there are so many. 

OAK311 gives users a choice between the five emergency options—downed signs, traffic signal outages, flooding, sewer overflow, and fallen trees or branches— and if someone selects one of these, there’s a good chance the city will send a repair crew out within a few hours, including at night. If people happen to call 911 for any of these issues, Wlassosky said, the fire emergency dispatch will be making a determination as to whether it’s an emergency or not. 

Oakland has seven different road maintenance crews ready to take calls during the day, with a total maintenance staff of about 45 people. But in a city as big as Oakland—80 square miles—this is not enough staff to cover all the emergency and non-emergency issues. 

After this year’s January storms, for example, it took the city five to six weeks to respond to all of the complaints of fallen trees blocking roads and clogged storm drains, according to Felipe Cuevas, a heavy equipment mechanic and the city of Oakland chapter president for SEIU Local 1021.

“The city was lucky that another storm did not come or it would have caused more issues with road blockages,” Cuevas said. 

The city currently has about 21 unfilled positions in its road maintenance crew. Members of the crew told The Oaklandside they could respond to road repairs at a faster clip if those positions were filled.

Another reason why there are so few people working at any one time on road fixes, Cuevas said, is because there are fewer crewmembers who can do the most difficult jobs than there used to be, especially during a pandemic when people have been out sick. 

Oakland also isn’t training all of its staff to do multiple kinds of jobs, according to Cuevas.

“OakDOT has taken an [emergency and regular maintenance job] and cut it into four different pieces. I may be with the city for 10 years but if I’ve only worked in paving, then I’m not getting experience in doing other things, like clearing up brush,” Cuevas said, who added that machines to clear debris use a lot of torque, and if people are not trained extensively, they could injure someone or themselves. 

Professor Hajj said that the best type of material used to fix roads, a hot asphalt mix, takes more skill to handle and more personnel to make sure it’s done right.

At the moment, there are about 70 people working for Oakland only picking up trash for Keep Oakland Clean and Beautiful. They could also be learning how to be a part of emergency crews that patch up roads, but the city doesn’t allow them to, said McElroy. “The silo doesn’t bode well for what we need. If I need to get up in the hills at three in the morning, and we need to clear the road for an emergency vehicle, there are people on the maintenance crew who are no help to me whatsoever,” he said. 

Which brings us back to potholes 

The city’s OAK311 app allows people to submit requests to fix a pothole, but there is no “emergency” tag for them. Instead, potholes need to be submitted as a general request. 

Logan said what happens next through the city’s OAK311 app explains why most potholes aren’t quickly fixed by the city. Oakland often offloads pothole repair requests to other local agencies for repairs. He went through the questions the app asks users with us one by one.

“Is there water coming out of [the pothole]?” is one question the app asks. “That’s to determine if this needs to be triaged to EBMUD,” explained Logan. 

“Is there an odor coming out of it?” is another question. This is to offload the repairs to PG&E or possibly EBMUD if it’s a sewer issue.

Other questions can lead to a complaint getting referred to CalTrans, if a pothole is near a highway.

The questions are actually “about whether or not it’s even the city’s responsibility,” said Logan. 

If people answer “No” to all of the pothole-related questions in the OAK311 app menu, the city goes on to explain why it won’t be immediately sending crews to fix the problem.

Oakland’s current approach to fixing potholes isn’t to respond to individual complaints. Rather, as the OAK311 app explains, Oakland’s current strategy is to fix numerous potholes in big batches through its three-year paving project, which is currently nearing its end. A new five-year project will start this summer. 

This means if there is a pothole on a street that’s not scheduled to be fixed as part of the current three-year or upcoming five-year paving plans, there is little chance it will be regarded as an emergency for a quick fix. 

“Even some really bad potholes don’t get fixed sometimes,” Logan said.

Oakland residents Susan Fox and Tina Heldman, fed up with the condition of their street, took pictures of the width and depth of the 14 largest pot holes on Bellevue Avenue between Perkins Street and Grand Avenue, near Lake Merritt. Credit: Susan Fox and Tina Heldman.

“You’re not always going to identify a pothole emergency because no matter what size the hole is, whether it’s in the pathway of a wheelchair, on the sidewalk, or in the dark, a pothole can break an ankle,” McElroy said. 

Former Bicyclist and pedestrian commission member Robert Prinz told The Oaklandside that residents should still continue to submit public reports through the OAK311 app and SeeClickFix. Prinz says he has submitted hundreds of reports that have taken from a few weeks to months to get fixed using a tutorial he created that increases people’s chance of getting potholes filled.

Oakland does not have an estimate of how many of its thousands of car collisions a year are due to potholes and how many of those lead to fatalities or severe injuries. But studies have found that tire blowouts nationwide lead to more than ten thousand vehicle crashes a year and more than 600 deaths. 

Mike Hester, vice president at Oakland pavement contractor Maguire Hester, said rain and other elements can quickly damage a road. 

“If there’s a crack in the road, a small pothole can turn into a huge pothole overnight. It deteriorates. If it’s a high traffic high volume road, it turns to crap really quick,” Hester said. The  Bishop O’Dowd graduate was recently traveling to his office when he almost blew his truck’s tire on a big hole.

McElroy thinks Oakland should rethink this system. He said Oakland should emphasize hiring roadside maintenance workers and to train them up in all facets of the job, not just one skill. This could create a “rapid response” team to fix road issues, he said. (This should not be confused with the city’s Rapid Response program, in which OakDOT planners and engineers lead a team in fixing some of the city’s worst infrastructure issues, usually in response to tragic collisions.) And he and other public works employees we spoke to said potholes should sometimes be classified as emergencies.

“The people out on the street already representing the city and fixing things should be the main people who get to determine the danger,” said McElroy. 

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.