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News: 04/01/2014

County roads update a mixed bag



While there have been improvements for Sonoma County’s highly used roads, as well as for those determined to be important to agriculture, recreation and tourism, the same can’t be said for much of the 888 miles of rural roads that make up 65 percent of the county’s roadways.

For the last few years, the Board of Supervisors has been trying to tackle a decaying 1,370-mile county road system that has suffered from decades of fiscal and political neglect, declining State and Federal gas tax revenues, and a decrease in property tax revenue, among other things.

At its meeting of March 25, the Board continued discussing the road situation while approving $9.8 million for work to be done this summer, including pavement preservation work on a stretch of Arnold Dr. in Glen Ellen from Sonoma Hwy. to the Sonoma Creek bridge, and a 2.54-mile portion of Bennett Valley Road from Old Bennett Ridge Road to Warm Springs Road.

Money from a road maintenance fund has also been freed up to repair and chip seal 2.2 miles of the worst sections of Sonoma Mountain Road. Last year, over 550 Sonoma Mountain Road residents and users petitioned the county to improve the nearly 8-mile road, citing safety concerns over deteriorating road conditions.

In total, the county has budgeted $50 million in the recent fiscal year for improving roads, bridges, drainage and safety features, a figure supervisors said was unprecedented and historic.

But, said Supervisor Mike McGuire, “None of us are satisfied with the conditions of our roads, and we know we have a lot of work to do.”

Supervisors said the daunting scope of all the work that needs to be done to fix and maintain county roads requires taking a long range view and setting priorities, including providing the highest level of service to the roads that are used the most.

“The roads didn’t get like this overnight,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “You can only do so much in any given year.

A major indicator that’s used to determine the condition of roads is called the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), which uses a 1 to 100 scale. An 18-month study recently completed found that the entire county road network measured a 46, considered poor. However, the priority roads (i.e., high volume, important to agriculture, recreation and tourism) are now measuring 76, considered very good.

But “local” roads (rural, farm roads, etc.), the majority of county road miles, have a PCI of 34. County transportation officials say that these roads are the most difficult to fund because there is “no dedicated funding source.”

Both Rabbitt and McGuire are members of a Long-Term Roads Ad Hoc Committee, created last summer to come up with long-term funding strategies (i.e., taxes, bonds, revised countywide budget priorities) for improving the roads. The committee is due to report back to the full board within the next 60 days.

Whatever the committee comes up with, there is a consensus among board members that no drastic improvements in state or federal funding will be forthcoming.

“We’re on our own,” said McGuire.

Some of the public speakers at the March 25 meeting said that finding more revenue for roads has to involve taking a hard look at the counties biggest expense – employees.

“You really need to hit the reset button on salaries and benefits,” Craig Harrison, one of founders of Save Our Sonoma Roads, told the board. “I know it’s uncomfortable for most of you, but I think this is really where you need to go.”

Rabbitt responded by saying the county has already reduced compensation and pension costs, and will continue to work on those issues.

McGuire said the biggest culprit for lack of road funds is stagnant and/or declining gas tax revenue, and a state gas tax distribution formula that favors more urban counties. Annually, these counties, such as Orange County, receive tens of millions of dollars more than Sonoma County, though the number of miles of roads they maintain is much lower.


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Email: alec@kenwoodpress.com

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