s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

There's a pothole in front of my house. The depression in the pavement is small now, but you know how it goes with potholes. Soon enough, an ugly blemish becomes a jarring bump, a flat tire or a busted shock.

I mention this developing calamity in my front yard by way of declaring solidarity with my country brothers and sisters, the folks lamenting the deterioration of rural roads in Sonoma County. Every time I back out of my driveway, I sense your pain.

The Great Seal of California shows Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom), a cluster of grapes, ships on a river, a miner and a grizzly bear.

But we may need to find a place for potholes, too. After all, the grizzly is extinct in California, but the future promises potholes here, there and everywhere.

We could even change the state song.

I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all.

I love you in the winter, summer, spring and in the fall.

I love your fertile valleys; your dear mountains I adore.

I love your grand old ocean — and your potholes more and more.

(With apologies to the authors.)

Notwithstanding the excited protests of recent days, this public embarrassment didn't happen overnight, and it shouldn't be surprising. A gaping pothole can be defined as what occurs when decades of neglect are followed by an economic crisis.

When it mattered, no one complained that local government wasn't taking care of streets and roads. Californians were busy demanding more government programs, more projects and lower taxes, too. What could possibly go wrong?

Besides, talk of pavement preservation can be so dreary.

Not long after voters approved the tax-cutting Proposition 13, government began applying a pleasant euphemism. Deferred maintenance, it was called. Thirty-four years later, it may be time to ask if the maintenance work was deferred or simply abandoned?

Meanwhile, people who moved to the country developed certain expectations, even for narrow roads that served handfuls of residents. It's the county's road — dammit! — and the county should take care of it.

Many of these roads were accidents of history. Over the decades, every kind of logging road, dirt track and wagon trail was annexed into the county system, the largest network of rural roads in the Bay Area.

The Sonoma County road system now includes 1,382 miles of right of way. Drive 1,382 miles, and you'll be 98 miles past Denver.

The "deferred maintenance" on these roads now amounts to $120 million, and the county has about $4.5 million to spend each year on long-term road maintenance. Roads, of course, don't stop deteriorating. The shortfall gets bigger and the potholes more numerous with each passing year.

The candidates in the 1st Supervisorial District last week served up a stew of potential solutions — responses designed to disguise the fact that no one knows where all this money will come from. None of the proposed solutions comes close.

County government is broke, and state government is broker. (The state legislative analyst said Wednesday that the state budget deficit is "a few billion dollars" higher than previous projections, and people yawned.)

Supervisors last year agreed to forgo all but basic maintenance on hundreds of miles of county roads. Some may be on their way to becoming gravel roads.

In every corner of the county, rural residents tend to believe that their road is worse than all the others. When people who live along Lichau Road on the west flank of Sonoma Mountain complained last year, Supervisor Valerie Brown agreed that the road is "very bumpy."

But then she added, "I'm not sure it's any different from other country roads we're trying to find funding for."

When it comes to rural roads, government may be backing away from its traditional responsibilities — but it won't be the last time in this age of austerity. The truth is, many rural residents will learn to live with potholes or to share in the cost of repairs.

If it makes them feel better, the pothole in front of my house isn't getting any smaller.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.