Why does the Bay Area have the worst roads in the country?

May 11, 2017

Cat Spediacci takes me on a neighborhood tour of crumbling roads. We’re in Richmond, where she’s lived most of her life. Her Volkswagen rumbles over washboard pavement.

“The road is just completely rotten the way it looks,” says Spediacci. “If I had a tire that looked like this, I would replace it. If I had a fruit that looked like this, I wouldn't eat it.”

There are certain streets she never drives, for fear of damaging her car.

Spediacci works at Dana Meyer Auto Care in Albany, where she sees a steady stream of customers with pothole-damaged wheels. She’s had some bad luck with potholes herself. On three separate occasions, she’s hit a rough patch and had to replace her wheels. Each time cost her hundreds of dollars.

“I am done with it,” says Spediacci. “No one should have to spend that sort of money repairing their cars for bad road damage.”

For two years in a row, a national survey has found that the Bay Area has the very worst roads in the country.  

The report, funded by the transportation industry, analyzes government data on the roughness of pavement in every part of the country. The San Francisco-Oakland area scores worse than any other metro region.

The study estimates that rough roads cost the average Bay Area driver $978 each year in extra fuel and maintenance costs.

The federal data doesn’t cover minor streets, so the study only compares highways and major streets intended for through-traffic. However, it serves as a proxy for comparing road maintenance overall.

Spediacci is not surprised to hear that the Bay Area has the worst-ranked roads. But she’s puzzled as to how it came to be this way. She points out that the Bay Area has nice weather, and high taxes.

“Why,” she asks, “are our roads in such terrible condition?”  

Cat Spediacci holds up a chunk of roadway that's broken off near her Richmond home
Credit Eli Wirtschafter

 

Good roads don’t come cheap

“It's always expensive to do business in the Bay Area,” says Randy Rentschler, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

High wages play a role. The Bay Area has some of the highest median incomes in the country. Rentschler says the same applies to the construction sector.

Moreover, Rentschler says our roads are very heavily used, which means they get a lot of wear and tear. It’s also expensive to shut them down. Closing a highway during the day disrupts the flow of traffic, and “if you ask Caltrans to do the work at night,” he says, “it makes the cost go way up.”

Rentschler adds that California’s environmental review process drags out projects and drives up costs. “Every little thing requires years and years of work,” he says.

Baruch Feigenbaum, of the libertarian Reason Foundation, says that some of the Bay Area’s high costs could be avoided. A report from his group shows that California spends more on each mile of state-managed road than almost any other state. He says that strong unions keep the price of labor high, and that California does too little to avoid wasteful spending.

“There’s not a lot of built in incentives for contractors to try to keep the work as efficient as possible,” says Feigenbaum.

A patchy roadway in Albany
Credit Eli Wirtschafter

Decades of neglect

The decay of our roads was “generations in the making,” says Rentschler.

He points out that much of the Bay Area was built after the Second World War. “All those streets now are of age where they need to be completely fixed and repaired. And because we neglected them for decades and decades and decades, the cheaper fixes are long past us.”

The longer you put off road maintenance, the more it costs.

California’s pavement “needed to be fixed ten years ago, it needed to be fixed ten years before that,” says Rentschler. Now, he says, the infrastructure of the 50’s and 60’s is at an age where “it all got old at one time.”

In California, we rely on the state gas tax as the single biggest source of paving dollars. But since the 1960’s, lawmakers have only raised the tax a few times, and only by pennies per gallon.

While the cost of road repair has soared, the state gas tax hasn’t kept pace.

The result is that the state’s contribution to pavement shrank, and cities and counties were left paying the bill. Just nine years ago, the state government covered 62% of road maintenance costs throughout the state. Last year, the state contributed only 41%. Local governments payed for 50%, and federal investment accounts for the rest.

Is the state paying its fair share?

“Other states have a much bigger state role in transportation,” says Ratna Amin, transportation director for SPUR, the urban planning think-tank based in the Bay Area. “We raise a lot of our revenue locally,” says Amin. “This is not common across the country. It's becoming more common in California however.”

That explains all those transportation sales taxes you see on your local ballot. Mundane street maintenance has to compete with other things that voters want, like new bridges, and new BART stations.

“We haven't invested as much money as other regions in road maintenance,” says Amin.

But she defends that choice, in a context of limited resources.

“Sure, in the Bay Area we could choose to only raise money for pavement, never expand the transit system, don’t do street projects or increase bike lanes, and we would probably have perfect pavement,” says Amin. “But that's not the reality we live in.”

At Dana Meyer Auto Care in Albany, Cat Spediacci finds a control arm that got bent out of shape by hitting rough roads
Credit Eli Wirtschafter

The gas tax increase means more road repair

At the end of April, Governor Jerry Brown signed a $52 billion plan to pay for transportation. Most of that money funds road repairs.

This year, the state gas tax provides around $250 billion to local roads in the Bay Area. The MTC expects that number to almost double next year, thanks to the infrastructure package.

It’s paid for by increased user fees, and a twelve-cent hike in the gas tax. It's the first time California has raised the gas tax in almost twenty years.

Amin says the bill’s passing is an “amazing accomplishment” because it included an increase in the gas tax which “had not been viable for a number of years.”

She wishes it could be more.

Drivers “only pay something like 40 percent” of the cost of maintaining roads, says Amin. “A lot of people feel that since they pay a gas tax and other taxes that they must have already paid for the entire roadway and its use. But it's actually untrue.”

Cat Spediacci drives a lot, but she’s willing to pay a little more in gas taxes.

“I'd rather see the roads properly maintained,” says Spediacci. “It's kind of like insurance. Pay a little bit now. Avoid the big bill later.”

See which Bay Area cities have the roughest roads – and whether road conditions have been getting worse where you live.