Infrastructure Bond in Limbo

Alameda has about $300 million in needed repairs to streets, water pipes, and levies, but the city council is not yet ready to put a bond measure on the ballot.


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Illustration by Ryan Raphael

We have six minutes to go,” Alameda Mayor Trish Herrera Spencer told Councilmember Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft — Spencer’s likely foe in this November’s election. 

About 25 minutes earlier, councilmembers had imposed a 11 p.m. deadline on themselves to conclude the Feb. 20 meeting. “It’s 10:57,” Spencer intoned, as a motion to extend the meeting failed.

A chaotic few minutes ensued as some councilmembers scrambled to extend the meeting to another day.

But Spencer was adamant as the minutes ticked off. “It’s now 11 p.m. It is my understanding that without a motion, I have to adjourn the meeting,” the mayor said.

Exasperated by the confusion, Ezzy Ashcraft stood and began to collect her belongings. Cross-talk continued. Spencer rapped the gavel on the dais and abruptly adjourned the meeting. City Manager Jill Keimach appeared to have blurted out an expletive, and the meeting was over (the meeting occurred before the council voted to place Keimach on paid leave of absence).

There was reason for the city manager’s response to the abrupt ending of the meeting: It meant the council had missed its chance to put a much-needed $95 million general obligation bond measure on the June ballot to pay for improvements to the Island’s storm drains, protect the city’s drinking water, limit flooding in the era of sea-level rise, and make overdue street repairs.

The council could later decide to put the bond measure on the November ballot, but it’s unclear if it will do so despite the fact that the city staff continues to warn that the total cost of unfunded infrastructure improvements needed on the Island — estimated currently to be at least $300 million —will only go up.

Some councilmembers considered the proposed ballot measure to be half-baked, complaining that it lacked a list of projects that would be funded by it. City staffers responded that this wasn’t an oversight, but, rather, by design, and based upon tactics used in successful bond measure campaigns recently in Oakland and Berkeley. 

Furthermore, there was also a belief that the city was using the water contamination incident last September at Alameda Point — which gained considerable headlines — as the impetus for the ballot measure when it remains unclear whether the contamination was caused by an outside contractor, and not aging infrastructure. Some West End residents reported foul-smelling water flowing from their taps and showerheads. Although the East Bay Municipal Utility District later found the water to not be hazardous to customers, some West End residents were without running water for four days.

Councilmember Malia Vella, on two occasions recently, including the Feb. 20 meeting, alluded to the incident as being caused by a valve left open in error. But the city and East Bay MUD have yet to officially confirm that that’s what happened, Vella said.

Alameda Public Works Director Liam Garland said in an interview, “We’ll never know for certain,” about the cause of the leak. “Updating the antiquated drinking water system built by the Navy decades and decades ago with a newly designed and constructed EBMUD-compliant drinking water system will ensure EBMUD’s proper mapping and protections are built into the new system to prevent an incident like last September’s,” he added.

Nevertheless, more than two decades after the closure of the Alameda Naval Air Station and almost five years since the Navy conveyed Alameda Point to the city for $1, development of the prime coastal property has moved at a glacial pace — in part, due to the crumbling infrastructure. The city’s master plan for Alameda Point lays out $600 million in infrastructure upgrades, including $21 million for drinking water improvements, said Garland. But part of the grand pitch in 2003 for development was a policy of fiscal neutrality that, in effect, said potential developers at Alameda Point would foot the bill for infrastructure improvements — not taxpayers. Using some of the proceeds from the proposed ballot measure would run the risk of violating this pact with Alameda residents, said Councilmember Jim Oddie (as did Vella).

Some good news, however, came in early March when the on-and-off-again, 800-unit housing and commercial development known as “Site A” at Alameda Point was back on track. The developer of the 65-acre property near the Seaplane Lagoon defaulted on the project last year, citing the rising costs of construction labor.

The council had set a deadline for this April for the project group, Alameda Point Partners, to regroup and offer alternative financing, which it did at the March 6 meeting. The Site A development plan also sets aside 200 units for affordable housing, in addition to a new ferry terminal.

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