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The last few months have been rough for Oakland drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other vulnerable road users. Deaths are soaring, road safety funds are drying up, and approved repaving and road safety projects could be delayed by years.
OakDOT, which is still a department in its infancy, was shepherded through the last five years by Ryan Russo, its founding and path-breaking director, in spite of repeated turmoil and even a few attempts to shut it down. Despite hiring challenges, a sclerotic city bureaucracy and an at times hostile City Council, OakDOT managed to deliver a record number of road safety and repaving projects.
It was an example of what government can be, given effective leadership and just enough funding and staffing. OakDOT’s projects have used first in the nation models for prioritizing equity and safety when choosing what road safety projects to approve and which neighborhoods deserve repaving projects first.
But with Russo’s departure, OakDOT’s future is now held in the hands of City Councilmembers who often can’t think beyond their next performative (re)tweet or their next election to pursue higher office.
This turmoil on Oakland’s streets is occurring at a time when road safety and paving projects in Oakland are about to grind to a sudden halt unless Oakland’s City Council moves to prioritize safety over personal ambitions.
Oakland’s repaving plans for the next five years are almost entirely unfunded. The city’s increase in paving and road safety plans are also entirely dependent on OakDOT hiring and retaining 63 additional employees, at a time when OakDOT is struggling to retain the employees it has today. Growing the department to deliver 80 percent more projects over the next five year than it delivered in 2019-2022 would be an ambitious goal to say the least.
To provide just one example of how staffing challenges lead to worse outcomes for Oakland’s residents, delivering effective road safety projects like protected bicycle lanes, steel and concrete bollards, or crosswalk signals requires more staffing than the default traffic safety treatment in Oakland: gluing plastic cones to the street. This means that staffing shortfalls at OakDOT translates into real life consequences for Oakland residents and visitors who are put in danger by simply trying to live in our city outside of the cocoon of a 7,000 pound pick-up truck.
However, the Mayor who championed “The Smoothening” of The Town’s roads every chance she could get, is terming out in a few months; she’s leaving the City without having secured ongoing funding for repaving or road safety projects beyond the end of her term. The Mayor has also repeatedly failed to tell residents that they’ll have to vote for new taxes every five years to simply keep Oakland’s roads from deteriorating.
It also remains to be seen if road safety is prioritized within the $850,000,000 the City Council is maybe going to ask voters to approve in November. Voters in San Francisco failed to approve a street safety bond in San Francisco for half as much money. It seems likely that we will end up with more plastic cones to protect vulnerable road users from inattentive, speeding or drunk drivers.
Lastly, staffing challenges at OakDOT reduce the city’s ability to deliver on any road safety projects at all. 14th Street, Park Boulevard, Telegraph Avenue, an endless list of delayed projects; projects that take five to 10 years, sometimes even longer to go from plan to completion in Oakland are incredibly common. The deaths on Oakland’s streets and our ongoing climate crisis demand immediate changes; we shouldn’t sacrifice more lives or more of our earth to wait for our city government and elected representatives to act with the urgency that the current moment demands.
What we need is a City Council that makes OakDOT a regional and national destination for talent, where it doesn’t take years to fill a staff vacancy and where City Council ensures that OakDOT has enough funding to roll out solutions that save peoples’ lives and helps save the environment. Walking or riding a bicycle shouldn’t be a death sentence and we deserve a City Council that should understand that and takes action before people die, not after.