Potholes and sewers. Flash floods and stormwater. For students with busy schedules, these topics are probably not the first thing on your mind. Problems with the city of Berkeley’s street and storm sewer infrastructure, however, could make them all too familiar. Bike along Shattuck Avenue and you’ll notice a maze of potholes covering our streets. Step outside during a large winter storm and you’ll find water gushing from overwhelmed sewers. On Nov. 6, the city is seeking $30 million in bonds to combat these issues through Measure M, a ballot initiative deserving your support. This measure raises needed funds for the city’s neglected infrastructure and offers an opportunity to upgrade the streets and storm sewers.
According to a 2011 city auditor’s report, 12 percent of Berkeley’s streets need full reconstruction because they are considered “failed streets.” At the end of five years, this number is estimated to grow to 21 percent. Less visible is the 100-mile-network of storm sewer pipes designed to convey rain runoff to the bay and prevent flooding. This system, nearly 80 years old, has passed its useful design life, increasing the risk of flooding in our community during major storms. In addition, the system does nothing to remove pollutants picked up in stormwater as it flows over our streets and yards.
Measure M can alleviate these infrastructure problems in two ways. First, this ballot initiative raises $30 million for infrastructure investments the city cannot fund otherwise. The annual budget for streets and storm sewers are $3.6 million and $2.8 million, respectively. These budgets are consumed by the system’s current maintenance requirements, and they pale in comparison to the unmet capital needs for our streets, which are $46 million, and storm sewers, which are $207.5 million.
Furthermore, without funds to repair the most deficient parts of the current infrastructure, our costs will grow substantially. Streets cost an estimated three to 30 times more per mile to rebuild than to repair. In five years, more streets will require reconstruction, increasing our unmet needs to an estimated $71 million. Broken storm sewers will continue to flood and damage our neighborhoods, releasing 11 million gallons in West Berkeley during a major storm. Pollutants will continue to run off lawns and streets during storm events, contaminating the San Francisco Bay with pollutants. Delaying action can only make these problems worse.
Second, Measure M offers our community an opportunity to incorporate green design solutions in our street and storm sewer systems. An estimated 20 percent of Berkeley’s land is paved with impermeable concrete or asphalt. These surfaces increase stormwater flow — and flooding — and remove few toxic pollutants from runoff. Green infrastructure can combat these problems by reproducing natural water patterns. During a storm, this new approach to street design combines permeable pavement and rain gardens to absorb rain water where it falls and then gradually discharge it to storm sewers, lowering the risk of flooding. In addition, the storm water is filtered before it reaches the storm sewers, reducing pollutant levels. Measure M can raise funds to start our transition to this holistic design, benefiting our community and environment.
Opponents of Measure M argue the initiative is an inadequate, piecemeal approach authorizing the use of unproven technology. While our infrastructure problems are large, the $30 million from Measure M is an important first step to solve them. These complex problems did not develop overnight, and we cannot solve them by replacing 20th-century designs. Measure M will allow our community to act now to begin the smart redesign of our infrastructure with an approach that reduces flooding, improves urban design and prevents pollutant transfer to the bay. Green infrastructure projects are not unproven technology. One only need look at comparable solutions that already work, like green streets in Portland, rain gardens in El Cerrito or permeable pavement in the Port of Oakland to find examples of projects making a positive impact. Berkeley too must become a progressive leader in applying this technology.
Crumbling infrastructure is a daunting challenge, but we personally believe it offers us an historic opportunity to redefine the urban landscape in a green vision. Quick action is needed to avoid larger costs in the future. Vote YES on Measure M on Nov. 6 and start building the green streets of the 21st century. Let’s change the conversation from destructive flash floods and potholes to beneficial rain gardens and permeable pavement.
Andrew Torkelson and Brian McDonald are graduate students in the environmental engineering department at UC Berkeley.