Oakland residents are increasingly afraid of road potholes and frustrated about local agencies' repair times. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland roads are crumbling after weeks of heavy rain and the city is facing months of work to get a handle on the repairs. 

The pothole situation is increasingly frustrating residents, as seen in various social media forums and the Oak311 system, where anyone can report a problem. 

One resident flagged a large pothole on Grand Avenue between Broadway and Telegraph Avenue that had severely damaged their car. Another said a car got stuck on a street that’s “crumbled like an alligator’s back.” A hole in another neighborhood was slowly filling with water and growing dangerously. And one pothole was turning into a minor sinkhole in Cleveland Heights. 

“Would be a good place to train military personnel in avoiding bombs in the field. God knows we don’t need speed bumps up there, plenty of potholes to slow you down,” one resident angrily commented about Park Boulevard. 

The City of Oakland, according to an Oaklandside hand count of submissions on the 311 app, received about 130 requests to fix potholes between Dec. 1 and Jan. 20. 

Last week, Robert Prinz, the advocacy director of Bike East Bay, the local mobility advocacy nonprofit, biked all over Oakland to report potholes and other hazards on the city’s Oak311 system. Prinz submitted about 50 reports and said the worst areas are in East Lake and East Oakland streets like E. 16th Street and 81st Avenue.

Mayor Sheng Thao encouraged residents mid-storm to submit reports of roadway issues to Oakland’s emergency reporting system, hoping to get a jump on patching city streets. 

To find out how the city is recovering from the storms, The Oaklandside spoke with agencies responsible for fixing roads, including the city, Caltrans, EBMUD, and city workers, plus community members.

Quick patch cement works

Potholes can cause drivers to lose control of their vehicles, unexpectedly swerving or forcing vehicles to stop suddenly. The “slingshot effect” of the suspension going into a pothole can also ruin a car and injure anyone in it. For pedestrians and cyclists, stepping into holes can cause serious injuries. And as we noted earlier this month, potholes during rainstorms are even more dangerous because they’re obscured under water

Oakland Public Works, CalTrans, and EBMUD road maintenance crews are currently patching up potholes that have appeared this month with temporary paving solutions, some of which are more durable than others. 

Permanent paving mixes, which can include hot asphalt, cement, tack oil, and other material, last a long time but can only be laid down when the ground is dry, making them unfit for emergency patches during storms. 

This is why EBMUD workers use a cement solution called EZ Street Mix, which they say gets the job done by staying in place when the ground is wet. Oakland Public Works uses a “permapatch” cement, where three or four bags of the stuff are squeezed out by a couple of workers onto a hole, the material becoming hard after a few hours. Caltrans uses a similar temporary mix.

But how long does a temporary pothole fix last? According to Caltrans, their mixes can last months or years, though that is less likely on the heavily used streets. Oakland’s permapatch can last “forever” if done well, said Dwight McElroy, a street maintenance lead in Oakland’s Public Works Department, but it usually needs to be overlaid with permanent cement at some point in order to avoid deterioration completely. 

“The more overlays you do [through permanent paving solutions], the more you are reducing the amount of areas where you are going to have systemic issues year-to-year,” he said.  

Asphalt and road maintenance expert Ramez Hajj, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, told us that quick repair mixes are important because they allow agencies to repair more streets quickly. He also said they tend to be safer for staff because they can’t easily burn their skin or create fires. 

Hajj also noted that water is “the natural enemy of asphalt” because the latter’s chemical properties, minerals, and glue agents, are stripped by it, “causing cracking or pothole formation.”

“Rainstorms may also disrupt the stiffness of the soil underlying the road, causing foundation issues which lead to the surface distresses you see, especially in environments which have not been designed to handle such frequent storms,” he said. 

Fixes will take time due to staffing and resource limits

Officials with Oakland’s Department of Transportation didn’t respond to questions we sent them for this story. But City workers told The Oaklandside that it might take months to fix all the roads damaged by the recent storms. 

Felipe Cuevas, former SEIU 1021 president and an Oakland Public Works staffer, told us last year it took city workers nearly two months to fulfill all publicly-submitted help requests from January 2022, including fallen trees and clogged sewers. And these delays happened during a relatively dry winter. 

According to SEIU spokesperson Chris Flink, the city’s road maintenance staff still only numbers about 50 people, many of whom work overtime during emergencies because they have too much work for too few people. 

McElroy, the Public Works staffer, told The Oaklandside that San Leandro Avenue in East Oakland, which has been closed during the storms due to heavy flooding, is likely in the worst shape. He believes the city could have prevented major damage by reengineering the street years ago but that its location in a low-income neighborhood with fewer advocates likely made it easier to ignore.  

“You’ve got social and economic issues without attention below MacArthur Boulevard, where there are flooding conditions occurring every goddamn year,” he said. “We are rushing our ass up to Montclair to fix roads there [which is needed], but how are you gonna end up with these conditions in San Leandro Boulevard and below East 14th, every year?” he said.

Despite its budget crunch, the city does have about $1.5 million available to complete emergency roadway repairs and may also be able to tap into federal funding.

Bigger hazards like landslides take priority

McElroy said his team has not been able to get to many of the pothole requests because they’re prioritizing mudslides throughout the city, especially in the hills. At some locations, they’ve removed over 130 cubic yards of mud, taking up to 17 hours for crews to clear a road. 

“Alvarado Street and Gypsy Lane, Ascot Street and Chelton Drive, those are major points of entrance and departures from highly populated areas that need to be responded to based on our need to keep emergency vehicles available for our citizens,” McElroy said. 

McElroy said the city should do more to train workers and prepare better for storms. “We need to train people to do storm jobs,” he said. “We know when a storm is coming, so two weeks before, everybody, not just the drainage crew that’s very small, should be pulling grates and making sure the water goes into that system.” 

Caltrans told The Oaklandside their maintenance crews won’t go out during a storm if it’s unsafe, resulting in a longer timeline before fixes are completed.  

“If it is possible to do a repair in the daytime, this is preferable for the safety of Caltrans workers and the traveling public,” Caltrans spokesperson Janis Mara said. “Obviously, sometimes Caltrans does work at night when it is necessary and there is less travel on busy highways, but we have to factor in safety for the crews and motorists.”

Despite this limitation, Mara told us Caltrans has been working nonstop in Oakland trying to fix the roads they are responsible for, including on San Pablo Avenue. From Jan. 1 through Jan. 19, Caltrans received 133 customer service requests asking for pothole repairs in Oakland. During that same time, the agency received more than 600 pothole repair requests in the entire Bay Area. 

Mara also suggested Oakland residents who want potholes fixed on state roads, like International Boulevard, should skip the city’s Oak311 app and directly submit a report to the state’s Division of Maintenance.  

Unlike Caltrans, EBMUD told The Oaklandside it does not keep track of the exact number of work orders for pothole repairs it receives. Since EBMUD is the municipal agency responsible for water pipes that run under the street and connections to sewers and storm drains carrying sewage, their workers often have to be on the scene to determine if storm damage has affected that infrastructure.

It can take time, but the city does respond to 311 requests to fill potholes

Prinz of Bike East Bay says he’s submitted thousands of service requests on Oak311 over the years and that the vast majority have been carried out. 

“Go out and report a bunch of potholes and increase your chances of getting some stuff fixed. And then if something doesn’t get fixed, keep at it,” Prinz said. “Sometimes stuff does get overlooked because the city receives thousands of these but it feels like this time of year public works crews are really activated trying to do maintenance work after storms.”

Prinz recently created a webinar through Bike East Bay to help people improve their chances of getting their service requests heard. He told us that besides reporting a lot of potholes, which he says is the first and most important thing to do, there are three other things people should focus on to increase their chances of service request success. 

The first is to upload photos of the pothole with every request, allowing maintenance crews to more easily recognize it when they show up. A separate photo of the street environment surrounding the hole is also helpful. Second, while not necessary, Prinz says people can spray paint the perimeter of the hole with a water-based bright color paint before taking a picture. It will make the hole easier to find and help drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians avoid falling into it. 

The third big thing people should do is to use the “Watch Area” functionality of the Oak311 app. There, they can follow Bike East Bay’s watch area, create their own, or follow anyone else’s, all of which will automatically send reports to your email whenever there’s a change in a service request status. People can also ensure that their own requests show up in Watch Area feeds by using related keywords.

Reid Allen Williamson, a tech worker living in Dimond with his family, has started making many new service requests in the last two weeks. He walked four blocks around his neighborhood with his kids on Monday, spray painting holes, and said his kids were “into it.” Even after they painted the hole, though, his family later ran into one they’ve reported because they’re so hard to avoid.

“The worst part is really under the 580 freeway on Champion Street. I think the interesting point is that based on Oakland’s permanent paving plans, the priority is on streets around schools. And this bad road is next to a school,” he said. 

Williamson said collisions are more likely to happen in areas with bad infrastructure, speeding due to freeway on and off ramps, and congestion from various schools and business districts.

“People coming off the highway are stressed out getting to school. I’m stressed out cause I know they’re stressed out. They’re gonna pass me aggressively, though in two minutes up the hill, we’re gonna be stopped in traffic. Add some of the worst pavement in the city and… you just have to navigate slowly,” he said. 

Prinz says that when it comes to submitting pothole reports it’s good to do so all around the city, especially in low-income areas, so as not to reinforce inequalities in street conditions among neighborhoods. 

“I don’t only report stuff in my own neighborhood. I try to go to other neighborhoods and help out there too,” he said. “So anytime we can go to other neighborhoods with these infrastructure issues, it helps level the playing field.”

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and 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.