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Orinda Road Maintenance History

Orinda “inherited” about 90 miles of publicly maintained roads from the County when it incorporated in 1985.  By 2005 the condition of these roads was the worst in the Bay Area.  So Orinda created an Infrastructure Committee.


The Committee presented its report to the City Council on July 11, 2006.  It identified deferred maintenance of the roads, storm drains and water supply to fire hydrants.  It recommended a $60 million bond measure to tackle the most crucial needs including $42 million for roads, $8 million for storm drains and $10 million for water supply pipe upgrades to address the two dozen “grossly inadequate” fire hydrants.  The City put the measure on the November 2006 ballot, but it lost (2/3 majority needed) by about 200 votes.  It put essentially the same measure on the June 2007 ballot but it lost too, again by about 200 votes.  Then the 2008 recession hit and efforts to raise tax funds for infrastructure stopped.


However, the CIOC (Citizens Infrastructure Oversight Commission) was formed to oversee the bond funds that did not get voted and it actively worked to improve the roads with the funds available. 


In July 2012 the first Road and Drainage Repairs Plan was produced.  This envisioned four phases to address deferred maintenance of the roads and storm drains (the water pipes were dropped).  The plan estimated the cost for roads at $39 million and storm drains at $13 million.  The $52 million total was to be raised over ten years with a half cent sales tax and then two $20 million bonds, followed up with a continuation of the sales tax for long term road maintenance.  The goal was to bring the roads up from their current condition (an average PCI of 48) up to a PCI of 70.


There were three problems with “the plan”.  (1) The $39 million road cost was based on a five-year construction schedule.  The “Plan” was for ten years. (2) The 66 miles of Residential streets, the focus of the plan, were in such bad shape (an average PCI of 39 with half of them having a PCI below 25), that the only way to repair them would be to completely rebuild them.  In doing so, their PCI would be increased to 100, which is great.  However, after half of them, about 30 miles, were rebuilt, this would raise the average PCI to 70 and that would be “job complete”.  But half of the residential streets would still be in terrible condition.  This was pointed out to the Council, but it was ignored. (3) No real survey or cost estimate of the storm drains was made.  The $13 million estimate came from the old Infrastructure Committee report.  But the residents were desperate, so they passed a half cent sales tax which generated about $1 million a year, enough to rebuild one mile of residential street.


Two years later, in April 2014, the second version of the Road and Drainage Repairs Plan was presented.  This corrected the “lowball” estimate for road repair and increased the $39 million to $52 million.  The “goal” was still an (unrealistic) average PCI of 70 (which would leave half of the residential streets untouched).  But the “fantasy” of bringing every road up to a reasonable condition persisted with the plan stating: “it is anticipated that all publicly owned roads should be in ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ condition (PCI of 50 or greater).”  Pictures of streets with varying levels of PCI were included.  One showing a very nice street with a PCI of 47 was an example of how a 50 PCI for lightly used residential streets was just fine.  There was still no definitive storm drain plan, so the “placeholder” was $14 million.  Total cost $66 million.


Based on this, a $20 million bond was placed on the June 2014 ballot and it passed with a 75% acceptance rate.


The third version of the Road and Drainage Repairs Plan was released another two years later in March 2016.  This version used a new feature of the pavement management software system (StreetSaver) that allowed to target not just an average PCI for streets but a minimum PCI.  The agreed “standard” of a 50 PCI minimum was input and, not surprisingly, the average PCI increased (how much was not reported) as did the cost (up from $52 million to $74 million).  In four years the projected road repair cost almost doubled from $39 million to $74 million which never raised an eyebrow.


There was still no definitive storm drain study so the “placeholder” cost of $14 million was repeated for a total cost of $88 million.  The plan to raise this money included:

1) The existing half cent sales tax: $10 million over ten years.

2) The 2014 Measure J bond ($20 million)

3) A second (2016, Measure L) bond for $25 million

4) A third bond for $22 million

5) “General Fund” sources (State gas tax and County Measure J “return to source” tax) for another $10 million over ten years.


The Council debated over whether to put a $25 million bond on the ballot or the full $47 million.  They chose the $25 million even though some thought they would never be able to get a third bond to pass after the roads were essentially repaired.  While they should have been working on storm drains and roads together, they chose to defer almost all storm drain work and essentially complete the road work with second bond.  The rationale was never given but it was probably to show the residents all the work being done.  Storm drains are “invisible” until houses start falling down hills because of inadequate storm water drainage.


The $25 million bond was put on the June 2016 ballot and it (barely) passed (68.5%).


By 2018 the average PCI of Orinda’s roads had increased to 74 and by 2020, when virtually all of the bond funds had been expended, the average PCI was 85 and the PCI of the 63 miles of residential streets was 90 (remember the “goal” was no street below PCI 50).  Orinda’s roads had gone from the worst streets in the Bay Area to “gold plated”.


In mid-2019 the Council set up a tax subcommittee to discuss an extension of the half cent sales tax, even though it did not expire until the end of 2022.  While the roads were essentially repaired, they did require maintenance.  Long range projections showed a average cost of $3 million a year would be needed over 20 years.  Existing sources include State gas tax ($1 million); County Measure J Return to Source ($500,000); and Garbage Impact Fees ($1 million).  This is enough for the first ten years of maintenance, but by now a storm drain study had been performed and the estimated cost to rehabilitate the storm drains was not $14 million, but $30 million.  So the proposal for not just extending the sales tax but doubling it, to 1%, was made and tested by survey.


The survey showed that a 1% sales tax would pass (requiring only a simple 50% majority if it was a “general” tax, not for a specific purpose), but the survey also showed that the residents primary concern was wildfire prevention, not roads or storm drains.  So that is how the tax was sold, although the “fine print” said it could be used for anything but would be focused on “essential services” including not just wildfire prevention but road and storm drain maintenance.


The tax passed and a citizen oversight commission was formed.  They had to learn about fire prevention and what they could do to provide it.  They were instructed by the Council to focus on wildfire prevention.  In the meantime, the tax was generating $300,000 a month in revenue.  After 15 months, the tax had generated $4.5 million in revenue, $350,000 had been spent on administrative expenses and $800,000 on initial wildfire prevention (vegetation removal), leaving $3.4 million for future expenses.


At this point (July 2022) the public works department decided to ask the Council to give it the entire $3.4 million for road maintenance.  The Council cut $1 million off the ask but did allocate $2.4 million for road maintenance, over half of the funds collected to date.


At the same time, the bi-annual road condition report (P-TAP 23) was being prepared with a survey of all 94 miles of publicly maintained roads (but not the 30 miles of privately maintained roads which have been denied public designation because the City did not have funds to maintain them).  The survey showed that the average PCI of all city streets was 85, and the average PCI of the 64 miles of residential streets (the goal for which had been PCI-50) was also 85.  60% of the residential streets had a PCI in excess of 85; 90% in excess of 75; and 100% in excess of 50.  The report stated that if the City spent an average of $1.9 million a year on maintenance (not the $2.4 million being spent from Measure R), the average of 85 could be maintained.  But if it reduced spending to $1.6 million a year the average PCI would drop a tiny amount to 83 over five years.


What would it cost to maintain all of Orinda’s streets at the more moderate level of a minimum PCI of 50, not an average of 85, considering that as “private” streets are converted to public streets they “attract” garbage impact fee revenue and County Measure J “return to source” revenue?


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