An examination of the proposed Highway 24 soundwalls is a detective story. The clues are buried in newspaper articles, technical reports, bureaucratic policy statements, and inter-agency letters. All of the information is public, although some of it had to be ferreted out using Freedom of Information requests. For those with the patience to examine them, I have documented these clues on this website. I have also tried to present the underlying story that emerges from them. It is a story of conflict of interest, deception, backroom dealing, and how not to run a democratic government.
I first put up this website in 2011 because:
1) I had discovered, upon studying the State Route 24 Oakland, CA Pre-NBSSR Noise Study Final Report December 2009, that the measured noise levels didn't justify building soundwalls in most of Rockridge; and
2) The Rockridge News didn't want to report this.
So initially, the only issue was that the Highway 24 soundwalls weren't really needed and that it made more sense to fund other proposed local traffic improvements instead.
But as the approval process began, I made more discoveries. It became clear that the person with the most influence on that process, District 1 Councilmember Jane Brunner, had a conflict of interest: she received numerous campaign contributions from craft unions, contractors, and a building supply company, who could benefit from construction projects. And the November, 2012 campaign in question was for City Attorney, not City Council, which meant that Councilmember Brunner did not need to be concerned about the opinions of her constituents with regard to her actions on soundwalls.
I found that the City of Oakland had never initiated Alameda County's soundwall approval process, which had been publicly advertised for two years as the guiding policy for the proposed Highway 24 soundwalls. The City kept this secret until it was exposed by my Freedom of Information request to the Alameda County Traffic Commission (ACTC). In other words, the City of Oakland hid the fact that it, not ACTC, would make the soundwall study approval decision; and that the basis for this decision would be the City's own policy instead of ACTC's published policy. The City's policy lowers the bar for approval significantly.
The decision to abandon the ACTC policy and write a new soundwall study policy was made by Wlad Wlassowsky, Transportation Division Services Manager, City of Oakland. This "administrative" decision was apparently made at the behest of then-Councilmember Brunner and was not brought before the City Council. Mr. Wlassowsky then sent a letter to 481 property owners that falsely told them that, according to the Pre-NBSSR Report, they would experience at least a 5 decibel noise reduction if the soundwalls were built. In truth, only 133 of them would see this benefit. I wrote a letter of complaint about this to Mayor Quan, District 1 Councilmember Dan Kalb, and City Attorney Barbara Parker. Only the City Attorney responded, saying that "the City...believes that it is abiding by the terms and conditions of the Caldecott Tunnel Settlement Agreement". That is true - there doesn't appear to be a prohibition against lying to the citizens of Oakland in that Agreement.
The decision to quadruple the number of property owners who would be eligible to sign these petitions came on the same day that an e-mail from the main organizer for soundwall study petitions, Stuart Flashman, was sent to Victoria Eisen, the consultant in charge of coordinating Caldecott Tunnel Settlement Projects. This e-mail was not made public until after the petition process had finished. In it, Mr. Flashman requested the changes to the approval process that were put in place. There was no public debate of these changes.
The City knew that it was highly unlikely that these soundwalls would ever be built, so that money spent on the studies would just be wasted. Yet the flawed approval process continued. This entire episode was a lesson in bad government. I can only hope that both the City of Oakland and the people of Oakland learn something from it.
- Jon Gabel, April 21, 2014