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Bicyclists wary of Mark West Quarry expansion


Sonoma County's tentative approval of an expansion for Mark West Quarry east of Santa Rosa has bicycling advocates and some county supervisors asking whether enough is being done to protect cyclists and others who use the quarry's busy east-west haul route.

Trucks entering and exiting the century-old quarry off Porter Creek Road traverse the hills between Sonoma and Napa counties on narrow and busy roads that also double as an approved bicycle and pedestrian corridor.

The expansion could add 37 to 59 truck trips a day on those curving byways — an increase the county described as "substantial," affecting Mark West Springs, Porter Creek and Petrified Forest roads — according to an environmental impact report.

But widening the roads' shoulders, the county's single best way to alleviate what it said could be an increased risk of collisions between quarry traffic and cyclists or those on foot, is not being required because the county has no plans or funding set aside to pick up its share of the costs, which could be more than $26 million for 5.5 miles of road.

The big price tag is a factor of the rugged landscape, with steep hillsides and creekbed hugging the roadway.

The quarry operator, BoDean Co. of Santa Rosa, balked at its $8.6 million share of the widening project, saying it would make the quarry expansion unfeasible.

The result is that, aside from BoDean's $255,000 contribution to a future traffic signal at the intersection of Mark West Springs and Riebli roads, the county has required no other major traffic modifications as part the company's 20-year permit to expand into an adjacent property.

That has some bicycling advocates seeing red.

The county doesn't "have any right to put the public at risk for the profitability of one particular business," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

As is, Helfrich said, the area's narrow roads are a hazard, failing to meet county standards for pavement width, sight distance and other safety measures.

"If you're going to run more trucks on them, at least make them safe for somebody," Helfrich said. "What's the public benefit of giving them a pass? That's what I don't understand."

BoDean general manager Bill Williams said the company is not getting a sweetheart deal. Over the next 20 years, it is set to pay a total of $2.1 million toward upkeep of roads on its hauling route through a 10.5-cent per ton fee the county charges to rock haulers.

"Part of safety is condition of the road," Williams said.

Haulers who do business with the quarry also are subject to a "good neighbor" trucking program that monitors any complaints against drivers and penalizes or suspends those who've had offenses, Williams said.

Aside from a recent collision involving a passenger vehicle that crossed over the dividing line into a rock truck, Williams said he could not recall other serious collisions involving quarry traffic.

A county staff report said vehicle collisions along Mark West Springs and Porter Creek roads declined in the years before the permit application, from 32 collisions in 2001 to 23 in 2008.

BoDean first sought its expansion permit in 2003 before proposing the current project in 2009. It would move onto a 33-acre site immediately to the west, allowing the quarry to follow the harder rock it has been excavating since 1910. BoDean has operated the quarry since 1989.

The Board of Supervisors gave the project preliminary approval Tuesday, with a formal vote set for Dec. 10. The decision attracted little opposition, with worries about traffic and environmental impacts voiced only by a pair of neighbors. They included the operator of the nearby Petrified Forest, a private tourist attraction that features well-preserved redwoods and other fossilized trees that are more than 3 million years old.

Supervisors welcomed the quiet hearing, a contrast to bitter disputes over other quarry projects in the past. Many have been approved or expanded subject to costly habitat mitigation and road upgrades.

Supervisors expressed some concern that traffic improvements required for the Mark West Quarry were insufficient.

"We know we're going to have some additional impacts of trucks on the road," said Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the area.

Supervisors discussed increasing the rock-hauling fee, which currently doesn't apply to companies that import material from outside the county. Any change would need to be applied countywide and need extensive discussion, they agreed.

Gorin and other supervisors pressed county staff to go back to the drawing board on other traffic measures for the Mark West Quarry.

"We need to find something," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, an avid cyclist. "We can't just say we can't afford it and have no plans."

Helfrich, the bike coalition director, conceded that aside from shoulder improvements and wholesale changes to truck routes or designated bicycle corridors, he saw few easy fixes. Still, he said his group, the county's leading bicycle advocacy organization, hadn't been brought in on the issue.

"They never consulted us," Helfrich said of county planners.

The county also apparently dropped ideas put forward by its own bicycle and pedestrian safety committee four years ago in connection with the quarry project.

Steve Schmitz, the county transit planner who acts as the advisory committee's staff person, said he submitted two ideas he thought were reasonable: a truck driver education program, focusing on the rights of bicyclists; and an expanded effort by BoDean to keep the shoulders on the hauling route clean of rock and other debris.

The advisory committee hasn't weighed in on the project since making the suggestions. "After that, I don't know what happened," Schmitz said.

Sigrid Swedenborg, the county planner overseeing the project, said she would be circling back with cycling advocates to discuss their ideas.

Williams, the BoDean manager, said he would consider the ideas previously put forward by the bicycle and pedestrian committee and other proposals.

"We're more than happy to look at anything that can be reasonably achieved," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.)