San Joseans have a lot to say about their roads: It’s one of the most common complaints levied against the city.
“There are lots of pockets in the city with bad roads that I just don’t feel safe biking,” said Bobby Gonzalez, a San Jose resident and avid cyclist. “Downtown’s roads are designed differently so you feel a little safer than the East Side.”
Rough road conditions have resulted in 76 claims against the city in the last 12 months, with about 20 of those claims filed over damage caused by potholes.
The city scores its streets with the pavement condition index (PCI), a system that ranks roads from zero to 100. According to data from the city, San Jose has an average pavement condition index of 67, which puts it in the “fair” category.
But according to a 2018 study by TRIP, a nonprofit industry-funded transit advocacy group, 64% of the city’s roads are in bad shape.
While the city doesn’t keep a running list of its worst roads, it does have a map that shows road conditions in red (poor), orange (fair) and green (good).
There isn’t one neighborhood that’s home to the city’s worst roads, but there are some pockets of green and red across the city. That seems to track with what Gonzalez and other cyclists are seeing: Better roads are found near the central and southern portions of the city and along its border as it approaches the nearby hills. Red roads can be found in East San Jose in the McLaughlin neighborhood, with other red areas in the central and western parts of the city.
One of the worst roads, Drexel Way near McLaughlin Avenue, has a PCI of just 12. One of the city’s longest roads, Monterey Road, is almost entirely graded poor with a PCI of 42. Another pocket, tucked into District 10, has a series of poor roads in a residential area.
“Our office works closely with the city’s Department of Transportation to keep the community informed of road paving plans,” District 10 Councilmember Matt Mahan told San José Spotlight.
But Mahan is concerned about the city’s maintenance backlog, which has grown to approximately $93 million a year.
San Jose has tried to stave off a backlog of poorly-kept roads throughout the city. In 2007, the city’s total infrastructure and maintenance backlog stood at about $900 million. Since then, the backlog has ballooned to $1.7 billion as of this year, with $845 million related to roads and roadway lighting. About $526 million is attributed to pavement maintenance, down from $580 million reported in 2018. The city projects that will drop to $389 million in 10 years when the PCI average is expected to rise to 70.
“Before we spend on new programs, we need to address this backlog. Failure to do so puts lives at risk and costs us more in the long run,” Mahan said.
The maintenance backlog doesn’t bode well for residents—especially cyclists like Gonzalez and avid biker Mayor Sam Liccardo.
“Like other cyclists, I’ve hit plenty of potholes over the years while riding along favorite routes to climb the East Foothills. Fortunately, key stretches along Mabury, Piedmont and White have all been recently repaved,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “We’re now repaving more miles of streets annually than we have in at least two decades as a result of our successful 2016 and 2018 ballot measures, and residents are starting to see the results.”
The two measures Liccardo refers to, Measure B and Measure T, are expected to generate hundreds of millions of dollars for Santa Clara County and San Jose, respectively. Measure B, a 30-year, half-cent sales tax will generate $6.5 billion over the next 30 years to be used for county infrastructure. Measure T, approved in 2018, sets aside $650 million for fixing roads, preventing floods and improving emergency response times.
San Jose’s transportation department picks which streets to repair by aggregating individual roads into “zones” based on PCI. The city has 135 such zones. The scores are noted from a laser-equipped truck that drives around the city and measures street surfaces.
The city recently adopted a new metric for deciding which streets to pave: the Metropolitan Transportation Commission‘s “communities of concern” map. The map identifies areas occupied by low-income people of color and those with limited English proficiency. The city prioritizes those zones each year for service.
Some of the highest areas of concern are the Evergreen area in District 8, northern portions of District 6, portions of District 2 and portions of the city that straddle Districts 7 and 9.
District 9 Councilmember Pam Foley said she’s coordinating with the transportation department to build safety improvements along with repaving streets in her district. Two streets—Hillsdale and Pearl avenues—will receive significant safety improvements, according to Foley.
Colin Heyne, spokesperson for the city’s transportation department, said 207 of the 325 miles of streets that San Jose plans to pave in the next three years fall within these communities of concern.
“More miles of streets with bad conditions fall in council districts that, frankly, tend to be more affluent,” Heyne said. “If we solely went that direction, then we may not be paying attention to low-income neighborhoods.”
San Jose plans to use Measure T dollars to repave 140 miles of streets this year, with 83 of those having a PCI score of 49 or lower.
Some work only requires quick pothole filling, where newer, smoother asphalt is poured into potholes and then stamped down by machinery. Heyne estimates the city filled around 8,000 potholes last year.
There’s also stamp patching, which covers a larger area and is more durable than typical pothole repair.
“Sometimes we do that, and (residents) haven’t gotten our fliers and they think we did a terrible job repaving their street,” Heyne said. “It’s really just a Band-Aid until we get out there in a year or two.”
Those road repairs bring the city closer to its goal of lifting its average PCI score from 67 up to 70, which would move it from the “fair” to “good” category.
“When you’re talking about 2,500 miles of street (total), that average is pretty significant,” Heyne said.
Most of the city’s problem streets won’t be addressed through at least 2023. City officials expect it will take until 2028 for all of the city’s repaving projects to be completed.
The budget for pavement maintenance has ballooned over the past decade from $19.3 million in the 2012 financial year to $120.3 million in the 2021 financial year, with the most significant jump from 2019 to 2020 where the budget increased from $51.1 million to $125.2 million. The increase came as a result of Measure B funds in 2020.
Roads are usually maintained on a cycle of eight years in a process called “sealing,” where a top coat of asphalt is applied to a road. Resurfacing, a more thorough process that removes and replaces the top two to four inches of asphalt, is performed on streets that rank “poor” or “failed” and can extend the useful life of a road as long as 15 years.
But that process is about four to five times more expensive than sealing, according to Heyne, so the city tries to resurface well before a road’s PCI falls into “poor” or “failed” conditions.
To report faulty roads, residents can call 311, use the city’s 311 website or app or call the Department of Transportation directly at (408) 794-1900.