Highway Dispute Prompts Meeting

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Berkeley's crusade to build a "living wall" composed of dirt and vegetation alongside Interstate 80 has prompted officials to call a special City Council meeting for Tuesday, even though the council is in the midst of its spring recess.

Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he requested the meeting to garner his colleagues' input before he represents them at discussions with the Congestion Management Agency on Thursday.

At the center of these meetings is a yet-to-be-built sound barrier that would separate Berkeley's Aquatic Park from I-80. The city wants this barrier to be draped in greenery, but Caltrans has said a living wall would necessitate seismic safety features called piles that shoot the cost of the project high above the available $3.5 million.

The less costly alternative is a concrete block wall, which is what the Congestion Management Agency has said Berkeley will get if it fails to reach an agreement with Caltrans by October.

Worthington said he hopes to convince the agency to review the proposals of both the city and Caltrans, and to make a decision between the two if they cannot come to an agreement. He also wants the agency to call on Caltrans to share additional costs of the project with the city.

"(The proposal) buys us from now until October to either convince Caltrans by logic or put pressure on them, and it gives us an independent consultant engineer to determine who is right between Berkeley and Caltrans," Worthington said.

The city and Caltrans engaged in talks last week that ended in disagreement over the safety of the piles.

A UC Berkeley professor hired by the city said the piles are not only unnecessary, but dangerous in the event of an earthquake. Caltrans defended the piles but suggested that even without them the living wall would cost too much.

The council is expected to consider how to respond to Caltrans at Tuesday's meeting. The proposed agenda also includes items about waiving fees for the People's Park anniversary celebration and scheduling public hearings on the city budget.

But not all council members agree that the meeting is appropriate.

"I can't imagine why we need the meeting because we are all behind the wall," said Councilmember Polly Armstrong.

Councilmember Betty Olds said she does not plan to attend and that she hopes other council members will follow suit.

"It's ridiculous to have a meeting," she said. "It's probably because Kriss wants to get attention."

Olds predicted that the five members of the council's so-called progressive branch will attend the meeting, providing the quorum necessary to vote.

Although council members dispute the need for a special meeting, they all seem to agree that building a living wall is a noble goal.

"Our proposal for a living wall is a safe alternative to their big ugly cement wall," Armstrong said. "They say a dirt wall is more dangerous than a cement wall. A dirt wall falls down on itself and a cement wall falls down across the street. I'm no engineer, but that seems pretty basic to me."

Caltrans representatives have said Berkeley can build its living wall as long as it assumes responsibility for the costs.

"(The city) will determine what kind of wall they want," said Caltrans spokesperson Greg Bayol. "The only thing is they have to find the funding for it."


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