Public Comment

Death and Taxes: Yes on Alameda County Measure BB

Toni Mester
Friday October 03, 2014 - 12:42:00 PM

With ballots arriving soon in a mailbox near you, the election campaigns are in full swing, and the alphabet soup of measures on the Berkeley ballot is heating up. There are eight proposals in front of the voters and two are direct taxes: Measure F, a special parcel tax to fund Berkeley parks, and Measure BB, the Alameda County Transportation sales tax. 

These are different types of exactions, but all taxes are a hard sell as evidenced in the quote made famous by Ben Franklin, who observed that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” 

Nobody has died lately from paying taxes, although the Tea Party would have us believe that resistance is patriotic as in Boston days of yore. But those of us who dutifully paid our federal income tax through the Iraq War have a lot more to atone for than shelling out for local benefits. A little perspective goes a long way in sorting our priorities. 

Our local taxes deserve support, but Measure BB is not getting the attention it deserves. If passed, this half-a-cent bump-up in the county wide sales tax promises to fund a broad spectrum of transportation improvements and projects as described in the Alameda County Transportation Expenditure Plan, which takes up 45 pages in the ballot book. 

The benefits of BB for Berkeley are many, but none more important than the rebuild of the Ashby and Gilman I-80 interchanges. 

For many years, the Cities of Emeryville and Berkeley worked with Caltrans in an effort to reconfigure the Ashby Avenue/I-80 interchange and eliminate its substandard features, including the Potter Street on-ramp that runs through the south end of Aquatic Park between the middle and southern most lagoons. 

The on-ramp is dangerous, as traffic enters the park from Shellmound Street and veers left at a 90° turn that some drivers fail to negotiate, running into trees and sometimes right into the lagoon. In June 2011, a stolen car was found in the basin near that corner, and last year, police chased another car straight into the water. As the Potter Street merges first into the Ashby ramp, the traffic has inadequate lane space and time to merge with I-80. Aquatic Park activist Mark Liolios once witnessed a truck overturn at that corner and flip into the middle lagoon. 

The City has long acknowledged these problems. “The current on-ramp configuration is unsafe and incompatible with other Park goals such as habitat restoration, noise attenuation, and safe use for pedestrians and bicyclists,” wrote City staff to Caltrans in 1998, and the next year reiterated, “Removing the Potter St. on-ramp…within Aquatic Park is Berkeley’s highest roadway priority in the Ashby interchange area.” 

Besides eliminating traffic hazards, closing the substandard on-ramp will increase park area, reduce noise, and protect the Potter Street storm drain that lies beneath. The 7 foot high and 9 foot wide culvert empties directly into the Bay, carrying run-off from the largest watershed in Berkeley. During large storms, water floods the lagoons and low lands, including the area around the huts that are now leased to the Youth Musical Theater Company. 

The drain is 60 years old, and with development in Emeryville, the daily traffic has increased to thousands of vehicles including heavy trucks. Closing the on-ramp will allow our engineers better access to the drain in order to make improvements and increase capacity. 

In 1993 Berkeley and Caltrans signed a cooperative agreement specifying City and State responsibilities in carrying out the relocation of the on-ramp, but Caltrans put the project on hold in May 1998, saying it was infeasible. The process continued with a Project Study Report from the City of Emeryville that contained three design alternatives then in consideration. 

After reading many documents obtained through public records searches, I cannot fully account for the past failure to implement the Ashby Avenue project; there were so many factors, including overlapping jurisdictions, lack of continuity in staff effort and political will, legal interference, and the sheer complexity of the issues. But it all boils down to lack of funding. 

Twenty years later, Caltrans might finally get around to rebuilding the Ashby interchange if Measure BB passes this election. When completed, it will not only improve the south end of Aquatic Park for its Berkeley users, but also serve nearby Emeryville residents, who will gain better access to recreational open space. 

A new Gilman Street/I-80 interchange is also included in Measure BB, and little needs to be said about the sad state of that hell hole, which some have called the commuters’ “hall of shame.” The reason more accidents don’t happen there is that drivers are so terrified, they take extra caution in navigating the maze. The substitute configuration is a dual roundabout that would improve vehicle safety and allow for bicycle and pedestrian crossing to access shoreline parks, the Bay Trail, and the Tom Bates sports fields. 

The improved interchange is essential for the successful development of the Gilman corridor, which has seen significant building of late including a Whole Foods Store, under construction, a relocated Office Depot, and promising leases and renovations at the old Flint Ink site, which is slowly being restored to use by Eddie Orton, whose company specializes in updating historic buildings. 

Once past the waste transfer station on Second Street, the area offers destination restaurants like T-Rex, Jimmy Dean’s, Picante, and Pyramid Brewery, as well as wholesale warehouse shopping, REI, the Tokyo Fish Market, and other favorites. 

Berkeley Rep recently announced plans to expand their campus at Harrison and Ninth Street into an artist-in-residence community that will revitalize the neighborhood and serve as a hub for creative theater making, promoting an artistic renaissance in West Berkeley. 

These freeway projects alone are good reasons to vote for Measure BB. A similar plan narrowly failed in 2012, which prompted the Alameda County Transportation Commission to revise its plan to gain endorsements from the Sierra Club and the League of Women Voters. With any omnibus package, there are projects to like or not, but Berkeley needs the rebuild of the Ashby and Gilman interchanges, and there is no other way we are going to get them. 

Death and taxes are inevitable. But paying for what we need and use locally is proof of being alive and contributing to society, and like old age, considering the alternative, I’ll take taxes any day.