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GUEST OPINION: A high price for crumbling roads

  • Cars drive down the center of Lichau Rd. to avoid potholes along the sides on Tuesday, September 20, 2011, Penngrove, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Anyone with a passing familiarity with rural Sonoma County knows that the deterioration of our roads is reaching crisis levels. The sorry state of our crumbling county road system is directly correlated to insufficient funding for road maintenance and preservation.

The Board of Supervisors has neglected county roads for decades, during economic booms such as the dot-com era and during downturns such as the current recession. The county has designated 219 miles of high priority roads (e.g., Adobe Road, Bodega Highway, Guerneville Road and East Dry Creek Road) that will be properly maintained. The supervisors have no plans to rebuild, repave or do anything but fill potholes on 1,163 miles (84 percent) of our county roads. Consult the map (http://sosroads.org/) and you will readily find orphan roads that are important to you.

Without a pavement preservation program, the orphaned roads will deteriorate to a point where they can only be ground up into gravel or completely rebuilt. At a cost of about $1 million per mile, this would cost more than $1.1 billion, which is almost same amount as the annual budget covering all county government expenditures.

Unless budget priorities are changed, you can expect most roads to continue to worsen at an increasingly rapid rate. For the current fiscal year, the Board of Supervisors budgeted $22.6 million for road maintenance. Of this, $4.2 million comes from the general fund and $18.4 million comes from federal and state funds.

Federal road funds are restricted by law to be used on the 356 miles of higher-volume arterial and collector roads. Thus even if federal funding increased dramatically the situation would barely improve.

State funding primarily comes from the sales tax on fuel and an excise tax (18 cents per gallon) that has not increased since 1992. Only 3 cents of the excise tax is sent directly to counties, and it's allocated using a formula that disadvantages Sonoma County.

In the Bay Area, federal and state funds are allocated among nine counties by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and it focuses on urban areas. The commission has little interest in the problems of Sonoma County's rural roads.

Since 2008, the Board of Supervisors has reduced road funding from the general fund by 46 percent. The current $4.2 million level represents about 1 cent from every dollar collected in property taxes in the county. The decline in funds has resulted in far fewer road workers. The consequences of these cuts are reflected in the quality of our roads.

Because more than 50 percent of the orphan roads are considered to be near or at the end of their useful life, by default the supervisors are allowing roads to deteriorate. The result of ignoring the problem is that rebuilding the roads will cost 10-15 times more than what pavement preservation would have cost. The estimated yearly cost to preserve the pavement on the orphan roads is $105 million per year.

At some point, rather than constantly filling more and more potholes, the county Department of Transportation and Public Works has indicated that the only alternative will be to grind up the asphalt and turn roads into gravel. When this happens, Sonoma County residents will experience far-ranging impacts. Property values will decline, businesses depending on tourism will suffer, emergency service response times will increase and quality of life will be diminished.


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