City of Berkeley needs to invest in improving infrastructure

Caragh McErlean/Senior Staff

Earlier this month, California came perilously close to experiencing what could have been one of the worst infrastructure disasters in the country. The failure of both the main and auxiliary spillways at the Oroville Dam prompted the evacuations of almost 200,000 residents in downstream communities, with officials fearing a 30-foot wall of water would inundate the area. Fortunately, the worst-case scenario did not unfold, but it brings to light the issue of our aging infrastructure.  

Berkeley has its fair share of infrastructure woes. In 2015, the Berkeley Pier was shut down after severe deterioration of its foundations. Aquatic Park frequently floods because of the failure of several tide tubes. Many roads are substandard, and several key city buildings are not seismically safe or energy efficient. Despite this gloomy outlook, we are in a unique position to improve our infrastructure and invest in a 21st century city.

In recent years, we have upgraded our streetlights to cheaper, energy-efficient LEDs. The savings has allowed us to increase lighting in poorly lit areas, improving safety. The old seismically unsafe Center Street Garage has been demolished, and a new state-of-the-art garage is currently under construction. We have made vast improvements to our sewer systems. The James Kenney Community Center and South Berkeley Senior Center are currently undergoing much-needed improvements. The Hearst Avenue Complete Streets Project is underway. The 120-year-old Summit Reservoir in Northeast Berkeley is currently being replaced. These are just some of the many infrastructure projects that are underway.

Fortunately, the voters of Berkeley have been very generous in their support of improving the physical health of our city. In 2012, voters approved Measure M, a $30 million bond to fix our streets with integrated green infrastructure to manage storm water. In 2014, Measure F passed, which increased the special parks tax to repairing and maintaining our city parks. More recently, voters overwhelmingly approved Measure T1 in 2016, which is a $100 million bond for infrastructure. Berkeley has close to $500 million in unfunded capital projects, and Measure T1 helps us begin to address the many critical projects and ensure that our streets and other public infrastructure can last for generations. This past November, voters approved Measures C1 and RR, providing funding for essential upgrades and maintenance to our regional transportation systems. The voters have placed their faith in the city to properly implement the measures, and we have an obligation to the voters to ensure we have a robust public process.

I have worked closely with city staff to work on an extensive public outreach program. Already, we have reached out to multiple commissions to gather their input on what priorities should be taken up, and the city will soon be launching a series of public workshops to gather additional public comments. For those who can’t attend any of these meetings, we will also provide an opportunity for people to fill out a survey online. We will have a comprehensive outreach program to allow people to decide how best to spend the revenue from the T1 bond.  

We must also prepare for California’s changing climate. After years of drought, we are now experiencing one of the wettest seasons on record. Switching between these two extremes places an extra strain on our infrastructure, much of which is operated under outdated technology. The award winning Allston Way Permeable Paver Demonstration Project is an example of engineering ingenuity. The stretch of road outside Berkeley High School is expected to last 100 years, instead of 20 years like traditional asphalt, and has the added environmental bonus of absorbing water, reducing the risk of urban flooding. Being home to the greatest public university in the world and neighboring Silicon Valley, we have unprecedented access to new technology that we can use to upgrade our infrastructure. We should be bold, take a 21st century approach toward infrastructure and invest in our future.

While our city is now taking a proactive approach to addressing decades of deferred maintenance, we cannot do this alone. Ultimately, we need a federal approach to upgrading our nation’s infrastructure. Fortunately, both Democrats and Republicans agree we need to reinvest in the United States’ infrastructure, but whether they can agree on a specific plan remains to be seen. For now, I am committed to taking bold action locally to prioritize our infrastructure needs, such as repairing sidewalks, expanding bike lanes, investing in our parks and improving our emergency shelters. Berkeley is now uniquely positioned to not only address aging streets and public facilities but also to help envision a future for our city that is sustainable and equitable.


Jesse Arreguin is mayor of the city of Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.