The city of Oakland's yearlong petition process to approve spending for soundwall studies has come to a close and the results indicate that there isn't sufficient support to fund the studies.
The expenditure of $1.482 million of Caldecott Tunnel settlement agreement funds for the studies would have been the first step toward building soundwalls along Highway 24 through Rockridge. Nearby property owners were notified in a March 2013 letter from the city that they were eligible to sign soundwall study approval petitions and that if two-thirds of them signed, the studies would go forward. The numbers just released by the city show that 300 signatures were obtained from 485 eligible owners, or 62 percent.
Proponents appealed to the Public Works Department to approve the studies anyway based on "substantial support" for them and a "flawed process." The appeal asked for more time to collect signatures, for the percentage of signatures required for approval to be reduced and for eligibility requirements for signing to be weakened. Public Works Assistant Director Michael J. Neary denied this appeal, saying that one year was sufficient time and that the approval requirements had been in place for more than a year without any complaint from the group making the appeal.
In fact, an email appended to Neary's denial of the appeal shows that one of the same people who wants the rules changed after the fact was instrumental in creating those rules back in January 2013. The expansion of soundwall study eligibility from 140 to nearly 500 properties occurred immediately after the city received an email requesting it from Stuart Flashman, the main organizer of the pro-soundwall study petition drive. (All of the documents mentioned here are available through the "links" page of my website, www.RockridgeSoundwalls.org.)
The city has released a list of the addresses of the 485 eligible properties indicating whether their owners signed the petition. Some interesting information can be gleaned from this list.
Those who have been following this issue know that if the soundwall studies had been approved, actual construction of the soundwalls would still require another petition approval process under Alameda County statutes.
County statutes define a much smaller group of petition-eligible property owners, namely those whose properties would experience at least a 5-decibel noise reduction if the soundwalls were built. The county's rules for soundwall construction approval are more stringent than the city's for soundwall study approval. Under county rules, 100 percent of the owners of the houses facing the freeway (first row) and 75 percent of the remaining owners would have to sign petitions in order for construction approval to be given.
A list of the 140 properties whose owners would have been eligible for construction approval (assuming that the results of the full noise study would have been similar to those before the Noise Barrier Scope Summary Report) was released last year by the city. By comparing it to the list showing which property owners signed the soundwall study petition, we can see that 76 of those 140 owners, or 54 percent, signed. Fifty-two percent of first-row owners and 56 percent of the remaining owners signed -- far below the 100 percent and 75 percent, respectively, that Alameda County would have required later for construction approval. I would not characterize this as "substantial support."
Several city representatives previously said that the Rockridge soundwalls would probably never be built because of the difficulty of obtaining funding. I believe that the public recognized that the expenditure of almost $1.5 million for studies would have been wasted. Instead, other real improvements on the Caldecott Tunnel settlement project list will be funded.
Jon Gabel is a 39-year Rockridge resident, former Rockridge Community Planning Council Board member and founder of the Rockridge DVD Project.