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By Night, Oakland's 'Pothole Vigilanties' Repair Damaged Streets


They strike under the cover of darkness, delivering justice to the streets of Oakland, Calif. They are the pothole vigilantes. Their mission - to fix and fill the craters that have vexed drivers and given Bay Area roads the distinction of being the worst in the state according to the transportation research group TRIP. It says 71% of Bay Area roads are in poor condition, and drivers on average spend around a thousand dollars more each year on car maintenance as a result. Well, the pothole vigilantes are sick of it and have taken matters into their own hands. Sonja Hutson from member station KQED embedded with the group and brings us this report.

SONJA HUTSON, BYLINE: The pothole vigilantes started as two friends with a simple goal - fix every pothole in Oakland.

BRIAN: Every single one.

HUTSON: That's Brian (ph). He started the vigilantes about a month ago with his friend Eric (ph). They asked that their last names be withheld because what they're doing, it's a legal gray area.

ERIC: Yeah, I mean, I grew up in the East Bay area. Then I recently moved back to Oakland in February, and I just realized there's - it's riddled with potholes. And then one day, I just had his epiphany.

HUTSON: Here's how it works. People make donations to a GoFundMe to help pay for asphalt and request the vigilantes come to their street. Brian and Eric estimate they've raised more than $6,000 and filled about 30 potholes. But they need more than just money to reach that ultimate goal of filling every pothole. Here's Brian.

BRIAN: Well, so we decided to come up with this meet-up to, you know, have the community come out and, you know, fill the potholes in their streets.

HUTSON: It's dusk in Oakland. Brian and Eric have pulled up next to a park with a U-Haul carrying bags of asphalt. People start to trickle in, loading the bags with asphalt into their cars and getting quick tutorials from Eric and Brian.

BRIAN: Leave about a half-inch crown on top so that it - you know, it goes over the hole.

HUTSON: Oakland resident Riley Laws (ph) is grateful for the pothole tips.

RILEY LAWS: It says a lot about the culture here. Oakland isn't just a city that's just rampant with negativity. You have people there that's actually doing something.

HUTSON: Once it gets dark, Brian and Eric climb into Brian's black pickup truck and head to a quiet street they know has a ton of potholes.

ERIC: Come on. Let's get down.

BRIAN: Behind the pothole, we're just kicking the debris out of it. Just dump the EZ Street in there, tamper it down to compress it a little bit, make it nice and flat.

HUTSON: Right as they're finishing up, a woman drives by and opens up her window. She asks if they're the pothole vigilantes.

BRIAN: We are.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, my God. I honor you. I worship you. I wish I could vote for you guys for mayor of Oakland.

HUTSON: The pothole vigilantes have no plans to run for mayor, but they have captured the attention of the current mayor, Libby Schaaf. The City Council recently approved a hundred million dollar three-year repaving plan. And Schaaf wrote on Twitter, thanks PVs. This job will be for in-house union pros. Ryan Russo, director of the Department of Transportation, says this is triple the amount of money Oakland usually spends each year on street repair.

RYAN RUSSO: We haven't really prioritized maintenance and infrastructure in the way we should, but this paving plan really means that help is on the way.

HUTSON: But the vigilantes say that's not enough, and their mission is not yet over. For NPR News, I'm Sonja Hutson in Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER. She’s been reporting on politics ever since the 10th grade, when she went to so many school board meetings the district set up a press table for her. Before coming to Utah, Sonja spent four years at KQED in San Francisco where she covered everything from wildfires to the tech industry. When she’s not working, you can find her skiing, camping, or deeply invested in a 1000 piece puzzle.