Why SF & Oakland Have America's Worst-Maintained Streets

Ratna Amin experiences the Bay Area’s poor roads each and every day.

“It’s not anything new,” the Oakland resident said. Amin also happens to be the transportation policy director at SPUR, the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

Although she works on many different regional transit issues, Amin named poor pavement conditions as “a chronic problem.”

She’s not the only one who thinks so.

In November, a Washington-based transportation research group, TRIP, released its annual report ranking the country’s roadways. For the second year in a row, Oakland-San Francisco was ranked as having the worst roads of any large urban region (a population larger than 500,000) in America.

In fact, 71 percent of roads in the two cities are listed as being in “poor” condition.” To put that into perspective, Los Angeles is second on the list with 60 percent of its roads in “poor” condition.

As officials in San Francisco point to Oakland for bringing down the regional score, and as regional transit agencies point to idiosyncrasies in reporting methodologies, one thing is certain: both city's roads have a long way to go before they can be considered “good.”

How The Study Works

Carolyn Bonifas Kelly is the associate director of research and communications at TRIP. She helped to put together the national urban roads’ report that was shared in November.

According to Bonifas Kelly, each year, state and local officials around the country drive vehicles equipped with special sensors around cities and towns. The sensors measure vibrations on the roadways that represent the pavement’s roughness or smoothness.

Photo: Roland Pernter/Flickr

This data is then shared with the Federal Highway Administration, which requires cities and states to report on the condition of their roads every year. It’s that data that TRIP uses in its annual reports. The data used in TRIP’s most recent report was collected in 2014.

“The way that I tell people to look at this,” said Bonifas Kelly, “is the roads we’re looking at are the ones you travel on after you leave your neighborhood: the larger freeways and expressways and the larger collector routes.”

Bonifas Kelly is cognizant of the Bay Area’s roadway dilemma.

Photo: Scott Denny/Flickr

“It’s been solidly at the bottom of the list each of the last five years that we’ve done this report,” she said. “It’s consistently listed as one of the cities with the nation’s roughest roads, and as a result, it has some of the highest vehicle operating costs in the country.”

TRIP’s report includes the average amount that motorists pay for vehicle maintenance due to shoddy roadways. The typical driver in Oakland-San Francisco pays $978 a year for those costs, which is third on the list behind Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Photo: Kevin Christopher Burke/Flickr

According to Bonifas Kelly, the largest factor that goes into an area’s roads—more than geography and weather—is the level of available funding. The cities with the best roads in the country, cities like Nashville and Orlando, make transportation funding a priority.

“In the Bay Area,” she said, “it really comes down to a lack of available transportation funding to keep the roads in good repair."

Can the Bay Area Spend Its Way To Better Roads?

“The TRIP report, believe it or not, understates the peril that the Bay Area finds its pavement conditions in,” said John Goodwin, a public information officer at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), which serves as "the transportation planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area."

“We have been stuck in a narrow range for years," Goodwin said. "Things are not getting worse, but with few exceptions, they’re not getting better either.”

The narrow range Goodwin is referring to is the Pavement Condition Index (PCI) score. The scale ranges from zero to 100. In San Francisco, the 2015 score was a 67, which is “fair.” Oakland scored a 57, which is considered "at risk." Whereas San Francisco has increased by two points since 2013, Oakland has dropped three.

A break down of San Francisco's road conditions. Source: MTC Vital Signs

“The key number on this scale is 60,” explained Goodwin. “That’s the point where the deterioration of the pavement really accelerates.” Anything below 60 is considered “at-risk.”

According to Goodwin, it’s a goal of MTC to bring cities and counties in the Bay Area to a PCI score of at least 75.

How?

“It’s a funding challenge,” said Goodwin, not to mention a matter of competing priorities and new construction projects in a “big old network like San Francisco.”

According to Goodwin, the primary source for California cities and counties to finance roadway rehabilitation projects has historically been through grants funded by the state gas tax.

However, the base excise tax on gasoline has not increased since 1993.

Pavement Life Cycle. Image: MTC

“In 1994, there was an $0.18 base excise tax in California,” said Goodwin. “Now, that would be $0.30.”

“You’ve had very close to a 50 percent drop in the purchasing power of the state gas tax over the last 23 years—we’re looking at an entire generation without a state tax increase.”

In 2014, MTC estimated that local Bay Area governments will need to spend $875 million a year through 2040—close to $25 billion—to meet the 75-point PCI target score.

This level of investment would be more than three times higher than the current annual amount spent on regional roadway maintenance.

Innovation Must Be Part Of The Solution

SPUR’s Ratna Amin thinks that there’s more to solving San Francisco’s crumbling streets than additional dollars.

“You have to innovate and bend the cost curve,” said Amin. “If you talk to any transportation engineer, that’s what they’ll say.”

According to Amin, San Francisco needs to explore more effective pavement solutions.

“There’s a fair amount of innovation on pavement materials out there—an entire world of research and development engineering. There is new paving material that is more resilient, more cost-effective, and easier to maintain.”

Amin also thinks that there is opportunity to get large freight trucks off of city roads.

Photo: San Francisco Bicycle Coalition/Flickr

“To get ahead of the problem, we have to do less damage to our roads,” she said. “A lot of pavement damage comes disproportionately from heavy trucks moving goods on our roads.”

Amin said that innovation in urban freight delivery—getting large trucks off of state-of-the-art pavement—would be complemented by placing more of an emphasis on human-powered transportation.

“Bicycles have almost zero impact on pavement,” said Amin. “So we have to make sure we’re prioritizing transportation that doesn’t make our pavement problem worse.”

“If we simply throw money at our roads, that doesn’t mean we’ll see benefits," she said. "We need to make a meaningful investment if we want to get ahead of this problem.”

Which roads do you think are in the worst condition in San Francisco and/or Oakland? Let us know in the comments.

And keep an eye on Hoodline for a deeper look at what San Francisco city officials are doing to improve our streets.

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Why sf oakland have america s worst maintained streets