A long road ahead
County struggles to fund even basic road repairs
“When are you going to fix the road in front of my house?” was the common question put to Sonoma County’s top transportation officials by a few dozen Sonoma Valley residents who braved a wet Jan. 15 evening to participate in a town hall meeting at Hanna Boys Center.
District One Supervisor Susan Gorin brought the head of Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works (DTPW), Johannes Hoevertz, the department’s pubic information officer, David Virkstis, a Caltrans representative, and other experts to describe the county’s road maintenance plans for 2020 through 2021, and to answer questions people have about the district’s terrible roads, judged by state experts to be some of the worst in the state of California.
The county has been struggling to stay even with the rate of deterioration over its 1,367 miles of paved roads, given the high costs of repair and replacement.
“I understand people are hurting over their roads,” Gorin said. “It’s a very large population. Road funding is based on per capita expenses, (and ours) is much smaller than others. With few people and the highest number of roads, it is difficult to draft huge amounts of money to address all the county’s needs.” While Sonoma County gets about $9,100 per road mile, Orange County receives $145,000 per road mile, according to DTPW.
Gorin said the First District has federal and state roads, as well as roads in the Springs area that “were barely roads.” Many district roads were built in resort areas with gravel and asphalt, and don’t stand up to any sort of traffic. “It’s part of the frustration.”
Fire and flooding disasters have strained already meager county resources over the past three years, damaging some roads and completely destroying others. “We have been on an emergency footing for years just keeping what we have open,” Virkstis said later. The 2019 storms caused 110 landslides and road failures across 50 locations on 20 roads, and required emergency winterization repairs on seven sites this fall. So far, the county has secured over $10 million in grant funding in support of “safety initiatives, hazard mitigation, and disaster preparedness.”
The busiest connector roads are at the top of maintenance and repair lists – depending on road condition and other factors. Residential roads come last, as several residents learned at the meeting, though special funds are being set aside for the worst local pavement, regardless of classification.
The basic rule of thumb for traffic engineers who deal with this, is that every dollar spent on keeping a road in good condition will save five dollars of major repair costs. And it costs more to fix heavily used roads. The cost of fixing roads has risen over 500 percent in the last decade.
That said, there is some hope on the horizon. The state almost doubled the gasoline tax in 2018 and a robust economy is bringing in more sales tax revenue, prompting the Supervisors to commit $40 million over the next four years to fix roads, with $1 million a year set aside for fixing the worst roads over the next two years.
Over the next two years, District One’s 266 miles of road will see work targeted for Lawndale Road in the Kenwood area from Highway 12 to the start of Schultz Road, as well as parts of Arnold Drive, Center Street, Greger Street, Grange Road, Grove Street, Hyde Road, Linden Street, MacArthur Street, Porter Creek Road, Riverside Drive, Solano Avenue, and Thomson Avenue. No dates have been set for the projects.
Where’s the money?Aside from a multi-faceted Measure M, passed in 2004, county voters have turned down two transportation funding measures since then: failing to support a $10 license fee in 2010 and another 2015 proposal to provide up to $20 million a year for local roads. The 2004 Measure M set a 20-year, quarter-cent sales tax that has generated nearly $300 million to date. Sounds like a lot, but the money supports SMART rail, buses, widening 101, adding commuter lanes, building bicycle and pedestrian paths, and fixing potholes and streets. Potholes and streets get up to 40 percent of the tax revenue, but that’s divided up among the nine cities and five supervisorial districts.
A very rough thumbnail calculation shows District One (Sonoma Valley) in line for about $800,000 a year of Measure M money for road repair, all things being equal. But they aren’t. Cities have vastly more concentrated traffic and are the major connectors to other cities and faraway places. Their roads get higher priority for funding than do rural roads for the most part, and rural residential roads are pretty much at the bottom of the “must do” list.
Measure M is only a part of the budget formula, however.
Today’s road money comes from federal, state and local taxes and fees, all of which are sensitive to ongoing economic and political pressures. Most of Sonoma County’s money comes from state gas taxes. What any road agency winds up with next year is a moving target, at best.
While it is possible for local residents to form a special tax district just to fix their roads, and a couple do exist in Sonoma County, they haven’t proved practical or even possible in even some areas . While over 100 miles of roads in the Springs area might qualify to be in such a district, it would need to raise $100 million to do the job. “That’s not affordable to an assessment district,” Gorin said.
When offered the opportunity, Bennett Ridge residents didn’t jump, and Rancho Adobe residents thought the cost was too high.
Gorin is currently working on getting Measure M passed again, as it sunsets in 2024. “Who knows, maybe we can work out some way to shift more funds to the worst streets.”
Meanwhile, the 11 permanent employees at the Sonoma TPW yard on Eighth Street East are working seven days a week keeping roads up. County employees do about 60 percent of the repair work with the rest going to contractors.
“Recent and successive disasters have placed substantial additional burdens on the departments, with over 60 project locations requiring major infrastructure repairs,” Virkstis said. “To manage project volume and for continuity of operations, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of work contracted out to partners.”