Sonoma County supervisors took no small step toward bringing local roads back to respectability on Tuesday. By finding $8 million to add to the road fund, the supervisors essentially doubled the amount aside next year for road upkeep — bringing it up to $15.5 million.
But here are the hard truths.
First, the money, which came from a special reserve used to cover delinquent property taxes, was a one-time thing. It won't be there next year.
And, second, in the grand scheme of things, it's still a modest advance in what will be a long and costly journey.
As Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane presented in their comprehensive 31-page road report, the problem is already so acute that 53 percent of county roads need reconstruction to the tune of $926 million over the next 10 years.
To put this in perspective, most of the newly added funds would go toward fixing just 7.5 miles of roads that have been targeted as in urgent need of repair. They include West Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg, Westshore Road in Bodega Bay and Adobe Canyon Road off Highway 12.
That's a drop in the bucket considering the county has 1,382 miles of roads of which less than 200 — most of them the most critical and heavily used thoroughfares — are getting the attention they need.
Yes, one can draw a line between this problem and the county's challenges with pension costs, which continue to suck up a bigger portion of general fund expenditures. But it's a thin line given that, at least in theory, road repair is supposed to be covered through gas tax revenues in California. But that has not been the case.
Given the popularity of more fuel-efficient cars and the economic downturn, revenue from state gas taxes has been either flat or declining in recent years. In Sonoma County, which has more then twice as many miles of roads as any other county in the Bay Area, the gas tax has never been sufficient anyway. As Supervisor David Rabbitt noted Tuesday, the tax allocation formula is "prejudiced" toward more populated counties.
As such, Sonoma County is one of the few in the state that pays for some of its road repairs out of the general fund. That is unlikely to change anytime soon. Because of budgetary challenges, support from the general fund had been cut from $7.8 million last year to $5.3 million this year.
Faced with these factors, it's tempting to put some kind of tax measure before voters in an attempt to bolster road repair. But supervisors were wise to resist that temptation on Tuesday.
Given the state of the economy and the absence of any clear progress toward pension reform — the county and public employee unions are in labor negotiations — getting voter approval of a tax measure likely would be a long shot.
For the moment, progress will have to come from creative solutions such as those approved Tuesday, which including setting aside $1.5 million of the one-time funds as seed money to match citizen efforts to improve roads.
Residents, particularly those in unincorporated areas served by less-traveled roads, are going to have to get more involved if they don't want to see their thoroughfares essentially return to gravel.