A long-term plan to fix Sonoma roads
Supervisors David Rabbit (Petaluma) and Mike McGuire (Healdsburg) spent the last year working up a Long-Term Plan to fix Sonoma County’s undeniably rotten roads, just five years after a 2007 report said the county’s entire 1,370 mile, $1.7 billion road infrastructure could fall apart in 10 years if something wasn’t done. The Plan, adopted by the Board of Supervisors on June 14, calls for 700 miles of the road system to be brought up to a reasonable state, and sets the Board on an intensive search to find funds to pay for it.
A Bennett Valley-based group – Save Our Sonoma Roads, better known as SOSRoads – raised enough of a stink about the county’s enduring underfunding of road maintenance to prompt the supervisors to tack on an additional $8 million in the last two budget cycles for pavement preservation, on top of the roughly $3.5 million annual budget normally allocated. The county’s budget for “corrective maintenance operations” was close to $20 million last year. Even including the extra $8 million, the county’s road budget doesn’t come close to addressing the $620 million the county needs to spend every year to bring all its roads up to good condition.
The issue is money. For the past 20 years, there have been increased demands on the county’s General Fund, which is supported by property and sales taxes. Both suffered greatly in the past seven years as the country slid into a serious recession. State and federal gas taxes are a major part of the county’s road budgets, and they, too, have taken serious hits in the past decade, proving to be capricious due to fluctuating gas prices and decreasing gasoline demand as high-mileage and alternative energy cars and trucks make their presence felt in the economy.
And even when gas taxes are collected, Sonoma County doesn’t think it gets a fair share.
“Unfavorable formulas and declining State and Federal gas-tax revenues,” the Plan’s executive summary states, “which are the primary revenue stream for road repair and maintenance, coupled with signicant local budget reductions due to the Great Recession (overall County General Fund revenue from property tax declined approx. $40 million between FY 08/09 and FY 12/13), along with increased costs of raw materials necessary for pavement preservation, have exacerbated the difculty in maintaining such an extensive road network.”
The state considers Sonoma County a “rural” county, thus eligible for a substantially smaller share of gas taxes than “urban” counties like Marin, Solano and other Bay Area locales.
Asked what the road ahead looks like, First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said the two toughest obstacles will be getting a local tax passed, and coming up with a real list of prioritized roads to fix and when to fix them.
“We need to set a two-step financial plan,” Gorin said. “We need to put a revenue plan before the voters in November,” indicating a sales tax initiative. “The Board will decide in late July on a formal revenue measure. Then it is vital that we talk to the citizens.” She said a number of meetings will be held countywide.
“The next step is to prioritize and strategize about the first 700 miles of roads to fix,” she said.
SOSRoads founders Craig Harrison and Michael Troy are happy to see any plan brought forward, but are wary that the funding picture is cloudy. Although the county has initially indicated it would include the $8 million road repair bonus in the 2014/2015 budget, that won’t be final until July when the entire budget is discussed and passed.
“I think they’ve come up with a plan that’s starting to look doable,” Harrison said. “But we are withholding nal judgment until we see the nancial plan. It is essential to have the $8 million (General Fund contribution) continue for pavement preservation to show the County is putting in a down payment, before asking us to raise taxes to pay for this. I have the feeling I’ve already paid.”
Citizen input is going to be important going forward.
“The roads identified in the Plan maps, we think need to be xed, but other, important roads ought to be in there,” Harrison said. “If you live on a road or drive on a road important to you, let them know. They can adjust and add some roads.”
Michael Troy agrees. “They should commit $8 million going forward if they are going to ask voters for a quarter-cent sales tax.”
Troy is also not convinced the county has been doing all it should to keep its roads in good shape.
“It’s curious that Sonoma County ranks 18th in gas tax revenues per mile, but is third from the bottom of California’s 58 counties in pavement condition index or PCI,” he said. “We are waiting for, but have not seen, an explanation that makes sense to us that Sonoma County should be so far off.”