Rebecca Kaplan Wants to Kill Oakland’s DOT

They've been improving safety all over council president wants that stopped?

Quick fix safety upgrades installed after a deadly crash on Foothill. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick
Quick fix safety upgrades installed after a deadly crash on Foothill. Photo: Streetsblog/Rudick

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In early April, a motorist killed a mother and child at 26th and Foothill in Oakland. In record time, Oakland’s three-year-old Department of Transportation installed the ‘quick fix’ safety upgrades pictured in the lead image.

All signs are that the new department, shepherded by Ryan Russo, is doing a good job repairing potholes and completing solid safety improvements against the backdrop of decades of neglect and car-centric planning on Oakland streets. But as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland’s City Council President, Rebecca Kaplan, is proposing a budget plan that would fire Russo and fold the department back into the Department of Public Works.

“During this short three-year period we have already seen a massive improvement in the quality of communications around Oakland transportation projects (follow OakDOT on Twitter, Instagram, Medium, or on the city website for news and updates), and the amount of direct community involvement and input shaping decisions and outcomes,” wrote Bike East Bay’s Robert Prinz in an email to Streetsblog about Kaplan’s budget. “‘Rapid response’ quick-fix projects have been implemented at the sites of serious injury or fatality crashes within just months of the incidents, a timeline unheard of in Oakland before the DOT.”

Streetsblog has an email out to Kaplan to find out what the reasoning is behind her proposal. The Chronicle‘s story implied that Kaplan’s budget is a swipe at Mayor Libby Schaaf, who beat Kaplan in the 2014 mayoral race. Kaplan is quoted in the Chronicle as saying the proposal to eliminate the DOT is part of her obligation to provide an alternative to the Mayor’s budget.

Either way, OakDOT staffers were caught offguard. Here’s a tweet from Sarah Fine, OakDOT planner, replying to the Chron’s story.

“OakDOT was created at the same time as the City created a Department of Race and Equity to encourage all city programs and policy-making to center racial equity. As investment and development continues to flood the city, Kaplan is proposing to kill the city department that has become a national model for upholding this commitment to equity,” wrote Clarrissa Cabansagan, New Mobility Policy Director at TransForm, in an email to Streetsblog. “The repaving plan and soon-to-be-adopted Oakland Bike Plan represent a culture shift, where long-neglected communities are now being more authentically engaged and are collaborating with government.  Eliminating OakDOT just as it is gaining momentum would itself be a huge waste of resources, and a step backwards for the city.”

Streetsblog readers may recall that late last year Kaplan attempted to delay the installation of protected bike lanes on Upper Telegraph, in Temescal, out of concern that it might delay motorists (even though the section of street in question is paralleled by an eight-lane freeway). Oakland’s new DOT, meanwhile, has instituted many street safety and bike lane improvements during its short history, including adding protected bike lanes around part of Lake Merritt, getting protected bike lanes installed on 27th, fixing Oakland’s Channel Bike Path, promoting community street murals and associated intersection improvements, adding bus-boarding islands with bicycle cut-throughs to the parking-protected lanes on Telegraph, and, most recently, constructing protected intersections around the Lake Merritt BART station.

Streetsblog doesn’t hesitate to criticize OakDOT at times but, on the whole, they’ve done a great job, especially for a new DOT facing huge challenges. That’s why Kaplan’s proposal to kill it went over like a lead balloon with advocates. “Kaplan’s ploy is nothing short of a childish rant, frustrated that her personal priorities are not more important than open, transparent, and equitable transportation planning that takes into account the needs of all of Oakland’s neighborhoods,” wrote Bike East Bay’s always frank Dave Campbell. “It’s time for Kaplan to take a timeout.”

Oakland-based readers: Now would be a good time to reach out to lawmakers and let them know where you stand.

UPDATE: June 5, 8:40 a.m., Kaplan sent the following reply to Streetsblog:
Yes my efforts to improve DOT functioning are based on extensive real world experience and receiving complaints (over multiple years) – that have come both from myself and others, regarding problems with DOT implementation and coordination. As someone who is heavily involved in transportation locally and regionally, I am committed to making sure Oakland can effectively complete transportation projects and can smoothly and timely work with other stakeholders necessary to improving our systems. I am working to have clarity and avoid duplication of effort and excessive project delays.

UPDATE: June 6, 1:30 p.m., the advocacy group, Transport Oakland, has put up a “save OakDOT” action item.

  • p_chazz

    Never have been impressed with this tinpot tyrant. Time for her to go.

  • oak2sfo

    Total support for getting rid of OakDOT, nothing but a waste of money and total incompetence. It was established with $1.5 million of “new money” – for whatever reason, and beyond that all they do is create new positions, hire overpaid consultants and deliver NOTHING. Ever since Russo took charge we’ve seen nothing but stupid waste-of-money campaigns like “paint street murals”, and his proud “we’ve fixed 25 miles of street potholes” proclamation – small dent is the 800+ road miles they promised to repair. When you need “pothole vigilantes” to do what OakDOT should have been doing all along, it’s obvious OakDOT does not work. Yes, get rid of it, fire the staff and outsource all to private competitive bid process, with contractual deadlines, penalties for missing them and guarantees of work quality. Oakland taxpayers (i.e. the 40% property owners who actually pay for all of this) deserve better for their money. Not a fan of Kaplan, but yes, totally support abolishing OakDOT.

  • LSZ

    This is clearly written by someone who has little or no knowledge about transportation planning.

  • p_chazz

    Spoken like a true Kaplan fanboy.

  • David

    As with “progressives” in other cities here in the Bay Area, Kaplan throws her weight around like a big baby when she doesn’t get her way. It’s very tiring, and as evidenced by the recent election of a “normal” chairperson for the state’s Democratic Party, others are tired of it too.

  • Victoria Fierce

    Outsourcing work costs many times more than in house work. OakDOT is cutting costs by moving design and build work in house, so hard to believe you actually care about saving money here.

  • Roger R.

    Here’s a good sample letter that was cc’d to me…

    Dear Councilmember Kaplan,

    I am writing to express my regrets as to your proposal to eliminate OakDOT.

    Along with my family, I frequently walk and bike across Oakland. We live very close to the intersection at E. 26th and Foothill, where someone driving killed a mother and child recently. OakDOT’s efforts to improve safety there in the wake of that tragedy should not just be embraced by our city leadership, they should be seen as a national example of an appropriate reaction to preventable traffic deaths. Those efforts made my neighbors, my family, and me safer.

    I would be grateful for an explanation and/or reconsideration of your efforts to curb this model agency protecting the lives of your constituents.


  • BK

    Kaplan is not making any friends – and making a whole lot of enemies – with this proposal. It’s hard to understand what her game plan is here. Combining bad policies with bad politics doesn’t typically result in a winning recipe.

  • Imskeptical

    If Kaplan could get rid of the stupid DOT, & maybe a couple of other frivolous departments that suck money away from necessities, I’d work for her next mayoral campaign. Oakland wastes money & then complains there is no money! Telegraph in Oakland is nearly useless for automobile traffic now. I don’t care if it’s the latest thing. It’s a fad, & will harm shopkeepers. (And it’s IRRELEVANT that there is a freeway nearby!) Cyclists & pedestrians now pop out suddenly from behind parked cars, forcing motorists to slam on the brakes, risking accidents. Idiot drivers block traffic while trying to decide whether to turn, and there’s no way around them. Get rid of the DOT and give that money to Public Works to fix the streets.

  • Imskeptical

    Amen, except for the outsourcing. Public Works can do the job.

  • Charles2

    Also in the Chronicle article: “Kaplan would slash $7 million from the Police Department and begin a sanctioned homeless encampment program.” … Just repair the streets, please. But DOT today is a bicycle agency, not a transportation department. Every month getting around Oakland in your car becomes more difficult. That would be okay if those who choke off our vital means of transit had real alternatives before they get started. If you can’t provide mass transit with frequent service at nearby stops, you have no business taking over everything for the tiny percentage who can realistically get around by bicycle.

  • Bryan Culbertson

    This is totally ridiculous. Oak DOT just proposed an amazing 3 year paving plan. We have already tried having transportation under DPW and it has NOT worked. See the state of Oakland’s streets.

    Let’s get the Oak DOT paving plan implemented ASAP! I want my streets paved now, not in 5 years after Kaplan finishes playing politics with our streets.

  • RichardC

    Actually, the data shows Telegraph is safer than it was before. The single lane in each direction has reduced speeding. And business receipts were up on the before/after comparison. It’s definitely not perfect – the street needs more physical barriers and enforcement to keep people from parking where they shouldn’t, but it’s still a big improvement from before.

  • RichardC

    If your point is that OakDOT should work with AC Transit to prioritize bus improvements on major corridors, then I agree. But traffic moves fine just about everywhere in Oakland because the streets were way overbuilt for cars during decades of 1950s cars-first thinking. OakDOT’s focus on safety improvements for people walking and biking is bringing welcome balance to the streets even if it means people driving can’t speed quite as fast as before.

  • Victoria Fierce

    Bikes are transportation too. Cars are the least safe way to get around the city, and a growing number of people don’t use them. Cars ran this city for almost a century; OakDOT returns power to the people.

  • keenplanner

    I used to admire Kaplan. Seemed like she put the idea of doing good work before her personal vendettas. I guess she’s now just another politician, grandstanding and trading favors.

  • joechoj

    Look, I’m sure she has a perspective I don’t have access to, with more insight into behind the scenes departmental dealings. But this comes across as completely tone deaf. Real change in street design – and the safety gains they bring – only began under OakDOT. Alignment of street design with repaving was a massive efficiency win both in scheduling & dollars, as was the decision to bring construction work in house.
    Missing from the list of big changes to streets: Lakeside & Harrison protected intersection, traffic calming on Shafter.

  • Wanderer

    So bus transit appeared once in the article, and once in the comments. Discuss.

  • Prinzrob

    Yeah, oak2sfo here has it completely backwards. One of the great things OakDOT has been doing is bringing more work in-house, which gives them a lot more flexibility on timelines, doing more work faster and not reliant on contractor availability and bogged down by a competitive bidding process. The new cycletrack project along Lake Merritt at Snow Park was designed in-house by city staff, changing an existing but out of date design on a short timeline but still with extremely high quality.

    Especially given the amount of competition there is now for a limited number of qualified contractors due to the influx of SB1 and Measure BB funding, Oakland would have a really hard time getting through their $100M paving plan by only contracting out. Smaller cities are getting hammered on this right now, with most contractor bids coming in well over the estimates due in part to the extreme demand.

    For work OakDOT can’t handle internally, they are still being more efficient than before by hiring on-call contractors for ongoing design and construction work, such that they don’t have to bid out each job individually and slow down the project delivery process.

    As someone who has been interfacing with the DOT a lot from the public side, I can very confidently say that anyone who claims that this work was handled more efficiently or cost-effectively by the old Public Works department has no idea what they’re talking about.

  • I’m not saying we should recall Rebecca Kaplan but
    we should recall Rebecca Kaplan.