Over the last few years, many people have written about why America can't build things anymore (eg. here, although this is just one of hundreds of relevant essays). Ten years ago, when I was 21 and had just graduated, a friend told me about a dangerous intersection in Berkeley. I tried writing to the city and asking for it to be fixed; I'm posting the email and reply here as a useful data point.

My request:

To the Berkeley Department of Transportation:

I write to urge the City to address a dangerous intersection, at San Pablo and Gilman Streets. When approaching the intersection from the west (on Gilman), there are two lanes of roadway, of which one is left-and-straight and the other is right-and-straight. However, on the opposite side of the intersection (east of San Pablo), there is only one lane of roadway. Hence, cars going straight are forced to merge in the middle of the intersection (with no warning), which is time-consuming and hazardous.

I and some fellow Berkeley residents propose that the lane arrows be modified, such that either the left lane is left only, or the right lane is right only. This way, there is only one lane of forward traffic, and cars do not have to merge in the intersection. This modification would cost virtually nothing, and would make driving easier for the thousands of City residents who use this intersection daily, as well as preventing a potentially fatal accident. We greatly appreciate your consideration.

Their reply is below. (Email is generally private, but in this case the communication, from a city employee about a government issue, should be an open record under the California Public Records Act.)

Dear Alyssa,

I forwarded your email to the Supervising Traffic Engineer, and have been asked to respond to your request with the following information.

San Pablo Avenue (State Highway 123) is under Caltrans jurisdiction, and any significant changes to the intersection must be approved by Caltrans. Recent communications from Caltrans indicate they have no immediate plans to upgrade their non-freeway facilities.

In theory the City could develop a modified striping plan concept and ask for approval from Caltrans to proceed.  If Caltrans were to agree to the concept, the City would need to assign resources to develop the conceptual design, then a detailed design,  obtain approvals from Caltrans, then put out and pay for a contract for implementation.

Though it seems simple enough as an idea, it does involve closing a state highway intersecting with a major collector street, and would be a significant resource-intensive task for the City to plan and execute a temporary traffic management plan.

We regret that we are unable to proceed any further with your request at this time, as it is not currently in our budget or in our approved Work Plan.

We do keep a "wish list" of unfunded projects from which we can draw should the appropriate funding opportunity arise, perhaps through mitigation funding from a future development project.

We already have a signal upgrade (with left turn phase) for the Gilman/San Pablo intersection on this wish list, and  will add your less- costly suggestion for a lane-restriping/reconfiguration project to the list.

Unfortunately, that is all we are able to do at this time.

As of 2021, the intersection has still not been fixed.


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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:11 AM

LA has a tradition of guerrilla freeway sign enhancements as a result of similar authority non-responsiveness. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_eye/2015/02/11/guerrilla_public_service_on_99_invisible_richard_ankrom_replaced_a_los_angeles.html 

You could probably implement this change for less than $5,000 and with minimal disruption to the intersection if you (for example) repainted the lines over night / put authoritative cones around the drying paint.

Who will be the hero we need?

On twitter, Alyssa suggests $50. Why do you put it so much higher?

For literally “just painting the road”, cost of materials of paint would be $50, yes. Doing it “right” in a way that’s indistinguishable from if the state of a California did it would almost certainly require experimenting with multiple paints, time spent measuring the intersection/planning out a new paint pattern that matches a similar intersection template, and probably even signage changes (removing the wrong signs (which is likely some kind of misdemeanor if not a felony)), and replacing the signage with the correct form. Even in opportunity costs loss, this is looking like tens of hours of work, and hundreds-to-thousands in costs of materials / required tools.

Agree in general. For this particular case, there don't appear to be any signs. https://goo.gl/maps/BZifQWTNCg3gdTaV7

Hi Bob, I noticed you have some boxes of stuff stacked up in the laundry room. I can't open the washing machine door all the way because the boxes are in the way. Could you please move them somewhere else?

Dear Alice,

Some of the boxes in that stack belong to my partner Carol, and I'd have to ask her if she's okay with them being moved.

In theory I could ask Carol if she's all right with the idea of moving the boxes. If Carol were to agree to the idea, I would need to find a new place for the boxes, then develop a plan for how to actually move the boxes from one place to another, then get Carol to approve of the plan, then find someone to help me with the bigger boxes, and finally implement the plan.

Though it seems simple enough as an idea, no one would be able to get in or out of the laundry room while I'm maneuvering boxes in there. I would have to coordinate with anyone who wants to do laundry that day to make sure we don't get in each others' way.

Overall, it would be a significant resource-intensive task for me to make and execute such a plan.

I regret I'm unable to proceed any further with your request at this time, as it currently doesn't fit into my to-do list for this week.

I do keep a "someday-maybe" list of projects I can draw from should I ever have some free time, for example if my job unexpectedly gives everyone the day off for some reason.

I already have "empty the lint trap" on this wish list, and will add your suggestion about moving the boxes to the list.

Unfortunately, this is all I can do at this time.

I wonder if this process would work better if there were a Kickstarter-like mechanism for people to pay the Department for specific work that they wanted done that wasn't getting done.

I love the idea in concept, but the likely equilibrium shift terrifies me.  No more budget for things we can make the backers pay for.

In a public system, perhaps a means by which one could choose to allocate some of the tax dollars they pay towards such a project?

It would mean a loss of funds elsewhere, if we are to avoid rasing taxes/spending less money, but might achieve some of what a kickstarter-like process might offer.

It might lead to cutting taxes, but it may also just mean the budget gets allocated to the next most valuable thing (or whatever it was already going to get spent on). Consider that if a project is pressing enough to get a government budget now, then it's probably something the government feels is popular and will produce credit for them (or help them avoid blame). Those are the kinds of things they might want to control for themselves, even with a Kickstarter mechanism. Hence, Kickstarter winds up being used for the kinds of things government, for whatever reason, neglects, and government continues to focus on the kinds of projects it's already doing. 

This reminds me of the time I asked IT fix a typo on a website at work (big Fortune 100 company) and they gave me an estimate of like $20,000.

Running a regression test to ensure that the right code got checked in, and the new build package doesn't contain any spurious check-ins from other developers is very expensive.

One our error messages said "system is froxen" until the application was no longer used.

Out of curiosity, how many serious accidents have there been at that intersection at that time? Not that I'd expect that to change the reply you got.

I think stories like this are unfortunately common in many places. Odd-seeming divisions of power and responsibility with no repercussions for failing to act create bizarre-seeming planning decisions. I have a family friend who has spent a decade repeatedly trying to have the city remove or prune a tree in front of their house. It has regularly dropped large branches on their driveway (recently crushing the roof of their car) and into power lines (causing local outages, enough that the city has relocated power lines to route around it). Its roots have caused recurring sewer problems and flooding in their house, and they've had to repave the sidewalk multiple times. Each time they report it and request the tree be removed or pruned, they've been informed that 1) it won't be, 2) they, the homeowners, are not allowed do anything about it, 3) they're responsible for removing branches that fall, 4) they're responsible for the costs of any damage the tree causes, including injuries to others on the sidewalk, and 5) they'll get cited and fined if they don't keep the sidewalk in good repair.

It sounds to me like "reporting it" is not the way to actually get change. A better way might be to contact local politicians (on the city level) or maybe to ask a lawyer to write a threatening letter to the authorities. 

Part of being a democracy is that you can contact your local politicians with problems if the government works badly. Local politicians get a lot less citizen engagement than those at a higher level and are thus more willing to write the necessary emails to put some pressure on the bureaucrats in question. 

The intersection is described as dangerous but I don't see any mention of accidents. Is this actually a dangerous intersection or more an inconvenient/offensive to some people's sense of acceptable?

*Not actual advice
Blow the matters up in an election season, concentrate media focus with minimal cost. Contact local political activists and famous NIMBYs, mass pamphlet style mobilization. Silent protest (of even just one) outside the Berkeley Department of Transportation. 

If you can guarantee votes for city councillors in a competitive district this may get resolved a lot quicker, and is theoretically one of the best way of handling things in a representative democracy. The real problem is one of coordination. If thousands are inconvenienced slightly there's no way to pool their dispersed inconvenience into the equivalent of a few dozen with strong interests willing to spend 40 hours a week lobbying.