Oakland roads are filled with potholes and other damage that makes driving hazardous. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Oakland’s roads are in notoriously bad condition, but in the past three years, the city has made record-breaking progress repaving streets.

Oakland managed to pave 121.2 miles of streets between June 2019 and June 2022, roughly meeting the 125-mile goal outlined in the city’s three-year paving plan, according to a new report

That number can be considered an achievement for a city that only repaved 61 miles in the three years before the paving plan. In fact, the city paved about as many miles in the last three years as it did from 2010 to 2019.

Department of Transportation Director Fred Kelley wrote in the new report that the three-year paving numbers represented an “aggressive step towards investing in Oakland streets,” especially by tripling spending from previous years. 

“The plan’s investments aimed to keep the majority of Oakland’s major streets in good to excellent condition and deeply invest in residential street paving,” Kelley said. 

City Councilmember Dan Kalb told The Oaklandside that the change he’s seen on the streets since he was elected in 2012 has been significant. 

“For a long time, potholes were being filled as much as we could, but not a whole lot of streets were being repaved, as they needed to be. It became just ridiculous and embarrassing,” he said. “But eventually we got that funding, and we’ve been paving the roads since.

The city prioritized paving on streets that were in the worst condition, and that also met equity standards set by the city administration. The main equity standard used by city engineers and designers was based on historical collision data, which showed that serious collisions and traffic deaths are most frequent in Black, brown, and Asian communities in East and West Oakland.

In the last year of the three-year paving plan ending in 2022, OakDOT paved 42.9 miles, a little less than the high of 46 the year before. OakDOT said the reason the city did not reach the total goal of the three-year project was that there continued to be staffing challenges throughout the department. 

Oakland’s low staffing, as well as long-term funding issues, have caused the city to delay major infrastructure investments in the past, leading to a big backlog of roads that are long past due for repaving. According to the city report, employing fewer staff makes road design timelines run longer, makes it more difficult to coordinate with county, state, and federal agencies that run transportation grant programs, and makes it less likely the city can incorporate public input into road repair plans. 

Contractors do most of the paving work

A sign cautions drivers of work crews ahead. Credit: Darwin BondGraham

Contractors completed about 90 miles worth of paving in the past three years while OakDOT staff paved around 22 miles. Reflecting the city’s problems in hiring and retaining paving and concrete crew staff, OakDOT failed to reach its goal by about 18 miles while contractors actually overdelivered on the number of miles they were hired to fix. 

About $7.5 million worth of paving was also completed by utilities such as East Bay Municipal Utility District through cost-share agreements where the agencies pave the street after completing unrelated construction work, such as fixing water mains. 

Kalb said that the hiring of contractors is also sometimes put off due to staffing issues, leading projects to stall. But that doesn’t mean other work isn’t being done in the meantime. 

“If a handful of streets on the three-year plan didn’t quite get done, we know they will in the next year or two after that. But OakDOT is also working on other projects that are of importance dealing with pedestrian, bike, and driver safety,” Kalb said. 

Good progress, but not great

According to paving experts, Oakland’s performance over the past three years is about average when compared to what other cities have accomplished. 

For context, San Jose, which has more than double Oakland’s population, recently completed a three-year plan that paved more than 600 miles. Washington D.C., just under twice the size of Oakland, completed 151 miles in 2021, and Chicago, a much bigger city, repaved more than 100 miles in 2018.

Colin Hayne, a spokesperson for San Jose, told the Oaklandside that San Jose has about three times the budget Oakland does for repaving streets. For 2023 paving projects that will cover 236 miles, San Jose has $102.3 million in funding, and last year, it used $102.7 million to pave 250 miles. Oakland’s three-year paving plan used about $100 million for street repairs, an amount that was mostly funded through Measure KK, an infrastructure bond that Oakland voters approved in 2016. 

Hayne notes that cities that have to rip out whole streets to improve decades of poor infrastructure, like Oakland is doing now and San Jose did a few years ago, also end up paying more for the work. 

“Replacing streets with several layers of asphalt costs five times more than sealing a street with one surface layer,” Hayne said. “As our network of roads gets better and we focus more on [surfacing], our costs go down,” Hayne said. 

Oakland did not detail in its report how many streets it paved with one layer of road surface and how many were fully reconstructed, which requires several layers. 

Kalb told The Oaklandside that the City Council could ask OakDOT to specify the level of pavement treatment all over Oakland to learn how much of the work was surface-level and how much of it was a full repair. But he emphasized that type of requirement is not as important as knowing how much the paving project also improves and relates to other aspects of road infrastructure. For example, OakDOT staff also upgrade sidewalks, add bulbouts for pedestrians, and improve crosswalk visibility, among other work, through these paving projects

“The streets should be repaved based on the need, and the need will be a little bit different for each kind of street,” he said. “But we also wanna make sure we spend our transportation dollars on other safety projects that help pedestrian safety, bicycle safety, and safe routes to schools. So paving’s important, but it’s not the only thing.”

OakDOT officials also noted in their new report that 75% of the money used for the three-year paving plan went toward local streets, which cover residential neighborhoods, and 25% went toward major streets like Foothill Boulevard. The reason Oakland focused heavily on local roads is because they were in worse shape compared to major roads. 

Street proximity to schools was also taken into account. New paving near schools in the last year of the plan improved roads on E. 19th Street, near Roosevelt Middle School, and 26th Street in West Oakland, which serves McClymonds High School and Envision Middle School. The city’s 311 non-emergency site emphasizes the focus on road repairs near schools in its automatic responses to all new pothole submissions.

The City Council approved a new five-year paving plan this past summer, which will guide work on streets going forward. 

The new report from OakDOT does not describe what impact this winter’s record-breaking storms had on road conditions, but there have been widespread reports of damage to streets, including washouts and the proliferation of potholes and other damage that will have to be fixed. 

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.