Mayor Sheng Thao’s 2023-2025 budget proposal, released Monday, cuts vacant positions across city departments and reduces some services to balance the city’s historic $360 million deficit. But one mostly protected from big cuts is the city’s transportation department, OakDOT, which plans, builds, and maintains Oakland roads, sidewalks, and bike paths.
The decision to maintain much of OakDOT’s spending, according to transportation experts The Oaklandside spoke to this week, illustrates how traffic safety has become a higher priority in recent years.
The council still gets to make amendments to the mayor’s proposal, so OakDOT’s final budget is yet to be determined. City Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas said she’ll introduce amendments to the budget by mid-June.
Overall, Thao’s plan reduces OakDOT’s total budget over the next two years by roughly $6 million. But Thao is proposing to boost OakDOT’s traffic safety programs by the same amount, particularly in West and East Oakland. Most collisions in Oakland that lead to serious injury and deaths occur on a small number of streets known as the high injury network. On 73rd Avenue, for example, drivers frequently travel high above the speed limit and there are few safe bike and pedestrian paths. To address this, a project is underway to add buffered bike lanes, bus boarding islands, and shorter crosswalks.
The $6 million Thao wants to add for more work like what’s being done on 73rd Avenue is less than what local bike and pedestrian advocates have been campaigning for, but activists are still optimistic. A coalition led by the Traffic Violence Rapid Response team provided nearly 800 signatures of Oakland residents to the City Council last month asking them to move $20 million from the police department’s budget and use this instead for OakDOT as part of the 2023-2025 city budget.
Bryan Culbertson, one of the founders of the Traffic Violence Rapid Response team, which protests road deaths and educates residents on traffic safety, said they expected the city to respond in a complex, “wonky” way to their petition. He views the $6 million boost for OakDOT as a “positive response.”
More important, he said, is that Thao isn’t proposing to freeze most of the unfilled positions for OakDOT’s Safe Streets program, which deals directly with fixing streets. Freezing hiring for an open position that has yet to be filled is a common way for cities to save money on the budget. Thao’s plan also doesn’t freeze traffic engineering positions, which means Measure U bond funds can more quickly be spent on new projects.
“And they increased the number of OakDOT’s capital safety improvement jobs by 10, to help them deliver capital safety projects,” Culbertson said. His group has told the city that without this commitment to staffing, big safety projects won’t be completed, even if the city has the money to build them.
OakDOT staff explained in Thao’s budget plan that their biggest multi-million dollar grants, which fund the majority of Oakland’s road repairs, are dependent on meeting strict deadlines. If more people are hired, the department can meet those deadlines and avoid having to give back money to funders like the state. Completing capital improvement projects also helps the city achieve its equity goals, as engineers can work to improve the most dangerous roads in low-income neighborhoods.
Since Thao’s budget proposal will almost certainly be amended by the City Council, Culbertson said road safety activists will continue to advocate for more money at the upcoming budget town halls. Since communities that need the biggest road repair needs are often not heard, they will seek to highlight how important street fixes are for them.
“We’ll show council members the petition had support from organizations and people all across Oakland,” he said.
Sidewalk repairs take a cut, but a new hiring task force will help keep OakDOT staffed
Thao did end up proposing some freezes for full-time OakDOT staff positions. Four unfilled full-time positions were frozen in the private sidewalk crew, which repairs sidewalks on private property to make streets more navigable for pedestrians and people using wheelchairs. The mayor’s plan says the city can use contractors instead of city workers to do the work.
Rob Prinz, the advocacy director of Bike East Bay, told the Oaklandside he is concerned about potentially losing the sidewalk crew because the city has previously said staff can do the job faster and cheaper than contractors. With hundreds of repairs needed all over the city, Prinz said it didn’t make a lot of sense to use contractors.
“This isn’t just sidewalks as noted in the budget report, but also stuff like protected intersections, curb ramps, and median crosswalk refuges,” he said.
Chris Hwang, the director of Walk Oakland Bike Oakland, concurred that the more sidewalks go unrepaired, the more likely the city will face expensive lawsuits when people fall and get hurt.
Warren Logan, who worked for former Mayor Libby Schaff as the city’s policy director of mobility and interagency relations, told The Oaklandside his takeaway from the budget proposal is that it highlights the overall mission of the department, which is to deliver “equitable mobility and transportation infrastructure.”
“Funding OakDOT is always a good return on investment, not just because it brings in more dollars to the city, but because it has direct impacts on the health and safety of our community,” Logan said.
Mayor Thao is creating a four-person “vacancy strikeforce” in the Human Resources Management Department to help the city fill funded but empty positions in OakDOT and several other departments.
“The greatest impact the mayor’s budget can have is in how she will tackle the enormous vacancies the department continues to have in every division,” said Logan. “Funding that team appropriately and empowering them to deliver results expediently may be the greatest decision she can make to increase service and capital delivery for OakDOT, even in the face of budget constraints.”
Betting on more revenue from parking enforcement, but cutting some enforcement roles
Thao’s budget assumes that the city can increase the revenue it earns from parking citations by 5%, and which will add $850,000 each year.
But Thao is also proposing to freeze about 12 of the 37 vacant positions in OakDOT’s parking meter and vehicle enforcement units. The administration claims doing this won’t impact services levels.
The city’s ability to adjust parking meter prices throughout will also be impacted by a cut to OakDOT’s budget, including freezing a position that handles this work. It’s unclear if this will affect the city’s ability to adjust the price of parking around Lake Merritt, where parking meters were recently installed. At the moment, lakeside meters charge $2 an hour.
The budget plan also accounts for the expected expense of $500,000 on new parking meters, including the cost of their maintenance. The City Council voted to add this cost to the budget when they approved the new parking meters at Lake Merritt.