Garbage and abandoned shopping carts litter the underpass under I-80 in Emeryville, where homeless people often sleep, Nov. 21, 2021.(Photo/Fran Quittel)
Garbage and abandoned shopping carts litter the underpass under I-80 in Emeryville, where homeless people often sleep, Nov. 21, 2021.(Photo/Fran Quittel)

She contacted Caltrans 75 times to clean up a dirty I-80 off-ramp

If you’ve ever taken the Ashby Avenue exit off I-80 in Berkeley, you have seen the filth piled along the east and west sides of the interchange, which is overrun with garbage and visible human waste. A homeless encampment sits along the interchange, which in recent months has been filling up with abandoned shopping carts and orange-colored bins that threaten to roll down a slope and into traffic. In the spring, an unmoored tarp appeared at the entrance to the underpass, blowing in the wind, inches from passing vehicles.

“That really was the crowning point of what I felt was becoming more dangerous,” said Fran Quittel, a Jewish resident of Emeryville. “I thought, some poor sucker, maybe a senior like myself, is going to drive through that [underpass], and that tarp is going to blow free. And you’re going to kill yourself … or another person.”

Quittel says she contacted various departments of Caltrans 75 times in the past eight months, by email and phone, demanding a cleanup and recommending fencing to keep rolling objects at bay. She believes she’s not the only one who’s been contacting the state transportation agency about the roadway hazard. But she is the only one who contacted a local radio journalist about the traffic safety issue, and got results.

RELATED: A homeless encampment crowded an S.F. synagogue. Its removal came with remorse.

“She’s the squeaky wheel that wants to get things done,” Matt Bigler, an anchor and reporter at KCBS Radio, said of Quittel. After contacting him, she led him on a driving tour of the Ashby Avenue off-ramp in early November. Bigler drove in his car, following Quittel’s with her phone on speaker, while she pointed out noticeable safety hazards.

“It’s sort of like driving through a city dump,” Bigler told J.

Bigler began investigating, reached out to Caltrans and waited for a response. Several days later, Janis Mara, the public information officer for Caltrans, who had been Quittel’s main point of contact since June, wrote an email to Bigler on Nov. 8 with a surprising announcement:

“Starting next week, Caltrans is planning to implement a ‘Litter Abatement Blitz’ on the I-80 corridor from the MacArthur Maze to Highway 4,” Mara wrote in the email, shared with J. “Caltrans crews will be picking up litter at multiple locations along I-80 and Highway 4 including the MacArthur Maze.

Fran Quittel
Fran Quittel

“At the eastbound Ashby offramp leading to the Shellmound underpass, efforts are being made to prevent litter and debris from flowing onto the roadway. Caltrans is frequently monitoring the location and considering fencing as necessary,” Mara wrote.

We asked the question, and the next thing we know, they’re starting to do this cleanup,” Bigler said of Mara’s response. “Quite the coincidence.”

In a June 7 email exchange between Mara and Quittel, one of dozens shared with J., Mara said Caltrans cleans the area monthly, collecting enough garbage to “fill up more than four 20-cubic-yard dumpsters,” but the trash piles back up by the next cleanup. According to Caltrans, it’s the result of drivers tossing litter out of their car windows and from people who “use the area as a dumping ground, either because they don’t want to pay to take something to the dump or think they are providing items the homeless can use.”

Both Quittel and Bigler acknowledge that the problem is bigger than the one off-ramp, and reflects what is taking place along urban highways across the country. “It’s a microcosm of a much bigger issue,” Bigler said, “which is homelessness.”

Quittel this week acknowledged there is a noticeable reduction in garbage along the off-ramp, and noted that the tarp has been secured to the ground. But, to her continuing disappointment, she said the shopping carts and bins are still a wind gust away from plowing down the hill, creating a real roadway hazard.

Quittel points to the $1.1 billion initiative Gov. Gavin Newsom launched in July that would allow Caltrans to “dramatically expand trash removal from state highways and fund local beautification and litter abatement projects.” She has concerns about whether Caltrans is using those funds as intended and wants to take the issue all the way to the governor’s office.

“I think what I’m doing supports Jewish values, I think one has that obligation,” said Quittel, who belongs to two East Bay synagogues, Congregation Netivot Shalom and Congregation Beth Israel. “I want the entities that are supposed to take care of people to take care of them. Is that a Jewish value, or a human value?”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.