A thousand miles of bad road ahead
By Craig S. Harrison, SOSroads.org
On the first of May, a member of Save Our Sonoma Roads struck a pot hole that deployed an air bag and caused $3,000 in damages to her vehicle. She was driving 25 mph, well below the speed limit. The board of supervisors hearing on June 19 that discussed the comprehensive 31-page road report by the Ad Hoc Committee provides little reason to believe that close encounters with pot holes will cease any time soon.
The good news is that the county maintenance budget, which was merely $5.3 million this year, will almost triple to $15.5 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1. This returns the county’s contribution for road maintenance from its general fund, adjusted for inflation, to the levels it spent in the late 1980s. The decisions by supervisors for over 20 years to divert road maintenance funds to projects that seemed more interesting to them have reduced Sonoma County roads to their current abysmal condition. Had road maintenance funding been maintained at an equivalent of $15 million per year during that period, the additional $120 million would surely have resulted in most county roads being in much better condition today.
SOSroads suggested at its first Road Summit in March that returning funding to $15 million would demonstrate that the board of supervisors is serious about making roads a priority. They delivered, and we congratulate Supervisors Zane and Rabbitt for their leadership in what could not have been an easy lift in this economy.
The additional $2.2 million from Solid Waste Franchise Fees, approved in February, allows the county to expand its Priority Road Network (now renamed the Primary Road Network) to 198 miles. The additional $8 million, approved June 19, comes from a special reserve used to cover delinquent property taxes and will not be available in subsequent years.
Most of the one-time funds ($6.5 million) will be used to rehabilitate 7.6 miles of rural roads that serve tourist destinations – West Dry Creek Road (wineries), Westshore Road (Bodega Harbor), Adobe Canyon Road (Sugarloaf Ridge State Park) and Cannon Lane (Tolay Regional Park).
Many members of the public who spoke at the hearing welcomed the additional funds but wondered whether these 7.6 miles of road are the highest priority, especially because they appear to be in comparatively good shape and not necessarily deserving of $855,000 per mile. What might be achieved by rehabilitating smaller sections (e.g., one-quarter mile or less) of the worst stretches of roads throughout the county? There are many roads with a bad reputation because of a few very deteriorated 100-yard segments.
The remaining $1.5 million of the one-time funds will be used to match citizen efforts to improve roads. This is a creative idea, and SOSroads volunteered to help implement the program in a practical way that would inspire public confidence.
It is frustrating that an $8 million major step forward will merely improve 7.6 miles of roads together with what can be accomplished from partnerships with the community.
There is no specific long-term plan to address the repair of the majority of the county’s failing roads. The county has 1,382 miles of roads and most of the 1,184 that are not in the Primary Road System receive no attention except to address immediate safety problems.
What will happen to the 726 miles of county roads (53 percent) that are now classified as poor or failed? The report estimates it will take $92.6 million each year to repair them. Ken Churchill of New Sonoma (www.newsonoma.org), a prominent pension reform advocate, stressed the connection between county pensions and the road crisis. The amount needed to repair the roads is almost equal to the amount the county is obligated to pay out of the general fund for pensions each year.
The report identifies four local tax increases that might increase road funding. In the unlikely event that all were approved by voters, the annual sum raised ($10 million) would barely scratch the surface of the $92.6 million problem. These include a local 0.25 cent sales tax increase ($3.5 million), a hotel tax increase ($2.5 million), extending Measure M ($0.6 million) and a utility users tax ($3.4 million). Special property tax assessments, where some residents agree to assess themselves to pay extra to improve nearby roads, remain an option.
Additional funding could come from statewide vehicle fee and/or gas tax increases, both of which require statewide voter approval or legislation. It would be helpful if the gas tax allocation formula that disadvantages Sonoma County could be revised. The politics of this would be a long shot because the current formula provides plenty of funds to other counties that are unlikely to be eager to redirect funding to Sonoma County from their own coffers.
SOSroads urges those concerned about the condition of our rural roads to get involved in this issue. While the supervisors emphatically state that there is no formal policy to convert 86 percent of county roads to gravel or dirt, the county is continuing in that direction without substantial additional funding.
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