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Coursey: The socio-economic side of street maintenance

Let them eat cake. Out of potholes.

That's the unfortunate message being sent by Santa Rosa's street maintenance program, described on this morning's Page 1 by staff writer Kevin McCallum. In a form of triage where pavement takes the place of patients, the city has decided to save the healthy ones, and let the sick ones die a not-so-slow death.

Not surprisingly, the healthy streets getting treatment under this program are in the relatively wealthy neighborhoods of Fountaingrove and Oakmont. The old, sick streets getting neglected are, naturally, in older, less wealthy neighborhoods. You know, like yours. Or mine.

It's not a great image: The Fountaingrove mom drives her kids to private school in a new Range Rover on manicured roads, while the beleaguered janitor bounces to work along Ninth Street in his 15-year-old Corolla. He can't afford a wheel alignment; she doesn't need one.

If you do any driving or bike riding around Santa Rosa, you know that Fountaingrove and Oakmont already have better streets than almost anywhere else in the city. That's largely because the streets there are newer, and they don't get a lot of through traffic.

So, as McCallum eloquently asks, "why is the city spending nearly $400,000 to resurface them this summer while streets plagued with potholes in other parts of town are crumbling like granola?"

Because, say Public Works officials, they can afford to maintain the good streets, but they can't afford to fix the bad ones.

Think of it in medical terms. The city is a cash-strapped emergency clinic that specializes in treating roads. Lake Park Drive in Fountaingrove or Valley Oaks Drive in Oakmont are young, healthy patients with hangnails and scraped knees. They can be fixed with a band-aid. But Ninth Street in west Santa Rosa or Pacific Avenue in the Junior College neighborhood are old, chronically ill patients barely getting by on life support. They need major surgery, heart transplants and artificial joints. The city can't afford any of that, so it ignores them and goes about its business of slapping band-aids on healthy patients.

Well, it's not quite that simple, according to Public Works Director Rick Moshier. The city is treating some of its sick and elderly streets – just not very well. While it would cost $15 million a year to keep all of the city's streets in "good" condition, the city has only been spending about a third of that amount in recent years.

Moshier said the city "used to always try" for an average rating of 70 on the 100-point Pavement Condition Index, but last year's average in Santa Rosa was 66. This year, it's 62. If things don't change, it will be 57 by 2018 and 51 by 2023.

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