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Road maintenance, a topic high on the list of voter priorities in Sonoma County, also hits close to home for James Gore and Deb Fudge, the two candidates vying to represent the 4th District on the Board of Supervisors. When it comes to examples of poor roads, they don’t have to go far beyond their own driveways.

Gore mentions the potholes that plague Bailhache Avenue, the county-maintained road he lives on just outside Healdsburg.

“It’s just funky and old, and it needs to be done right,” he said of the repairs needed.

Fudge mentions the time her elderly father filled potholes on Jensen Lane, her street in Windsor, with leftover material from a walkway project.

“It’s sad when you are the mayor of the town and your 80-year-old father goes out and puts rocks in the potholes on your street,” she said.

Both candidates favor a quarter-cent sales tax to fix the county’s crumbling road system, which the Board of Supervisors recently agreed to place on the ballot in a March special election.

Both say if the measure passes, they support matching the $8.7 million in annual tax revenue it would generate for the county with money from the general fund — and perhaps even exceeding the match — to help address the estimated $268 million backlog in repairs to the county’s 1,382-mile road network.

Some who have been active on the roads issue see Gore as the most likely candidate to follow through on that pledge. Supporters include SOS Roads, the Sonoma County citizens group formed to advocate for improved road funding, which endorsed Gore earlier this month. Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 also endorsed Gore for the same reason.

“We had several meetings with him. He will be a very strong champion of the roads issue,” said Craig Harrison, the co-founder of SOS Roads. “He sees roads as a major problem. We feel we have a really strong ally in James.”

Chris Snyder, district representative for the Operating Engineers, said the group considers Gore to be “a little more pro infrastructure” than Fudge.

But county Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who endorsed Fudge, doesn’t believe she will be any less aggressive than her rival in supporting road funding.

“I don’t see how a guy who worked for the largest agricultural department in Washington has a deeper understanding about our crumbling road system than a seasoned elected (official) who is also a bike rider, SMART board director, has been a planner and put money into roads in Windsor for many years,” Zane said.

The race for north county supervisor is seen as one that could determine the balance of the board for years to come, not only on how supervisors vote on roads, but on thorny land issues, public employee matters and environmental policies.

The two are vying to succeed Supervisor Mike McGuire, who is running for state Senate.

Analysts view the runoff as one that could determine the swing vote between liberal and centrist blocs on the Board of Supervisors. On contested issues, Zane and Susan Gorin are the most consistently liberal supervisors, while David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo tend to be more conservative. The vast majority of board votes, however, are unanimous, and the philosophical divide is not always as great as political endorsements suggest.

Fudge, 58, a five-time mayor of Windsor, has the backing of environmental organizations and the county’s largest public employee group, Service Employees International Union.

Gore, 36, a former assistant chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service, is supported by the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and business groups. But he and Fudge also have split endorsements from Teamster groups that represent deputy district attorneys and some Santa Rosa city employees.

After years of Sonoma County consistently being singled out as having some of the worst roads in the Bay Area, the Board of Supervisors this summer agreed on a long-term plan to improve the network it oversees, contingent in part on passage of a quarter-cent, countywide sales tax increase for 20 years.

It would generate an estimated $537 million to be distributed to the county and its nine cities for the purpose of maintaining local streets and roads, filling potholes, supporting transit service, bicycle and pedestrian safety, and roadway reconstruction.

The tentative ballot measure would be a general tax, requiring a simple majority to pass, with an accompanying advisory measure stating voters’ preference that the revenue go for roads.

The Board of Supervisors agreed to commit general funds to match the county’s share of proceeds from the new tax, and the county and cities would be required to maintain their existing commitment of local funds each year for transportation purposes, or face penalties.

But Gore says he would look to invest even more in roads.

“I would definitely look to allocate increased amounts arising from both higher property tax revenues and cost-cutting efforts, especially since this plan, while focusing on 850 miles, does not address the needs of the other 500-plus miles that will also need work,” he said.

Fudge said she would love to be able to direct more money toward roads than the county’s plan, but can’t promise it is possible.

“I will be looking at the whole picture and evaluating all the county’s services and determining needs for year to year,” Fudge said. “I will be looking to (direct) extra money for roads. I can’t guarantee it. It would be irresponsible before you see the rest of the budget.”

The county road network fell into disrepair as road funding was cut or kept static over the past two decades. The recession and the state gasoline tax distribution formula also hurt counties like Sonoma with larger road networks and fewer cars than smaller, urban counties, officials say.

The county currently spends about $16 million annually on “pavement preservation,” its term for general road upkeep. County officials previously estimated the maintenance backlog at more than $920 million, but a subsequent mile-by-mile survey resulted in the lower figure of $268 million.

The long-term plan would address the backlog through repairs to major collector roads, such as Old Redwood Highway, River Road and Stony Point Road. It also would focus on 500 miles of rural roads considered important to regional travel. An additional 250 miles of local streets in unincorporated communities such as Larkfield, Penngrove and Graton would receive some repairs under the plan.

The remaining 560 miles of roads in the county network — 41 percent of the total — are in the most rural areas and would be addressed only when funding becomes available or when emergency repairs are needed, according to the plan.

Gore said it is a travesty that “we pay taxes and basic infrastructure is not stable.”

“If we’re not taking care of existing infrastructure and roads, we are failing. It needs to be made a priority. We need to make the necessary investment and do it right,” he said.

Along with Fudge, he supports not just spending on roads, but improving transit systems, too.

Harrison, of SOS Roads, said one reason the group favored Gore is that he reached out to the organization. “He asked for a tutorial, said ‘Give me all the background you can,’ ” Harrison said. The group didn’t hear from Fudge, he said, other than at an April forum where supervisorial candidates addressed the road issue prior to the primary election.

Fudge, for her part, joked that “I didn’t need a tutorial. I could have taught Gore.”

As a bicyclist, she said, “I know roads up front and personal. At one point I could have mapped out every pothole on Eastside Road, Chalk Hill and Westside Road.”

Fudge said as a Windsor councilwoman, she has joined with her colleagues to put extra funding into roads, even during the recession, above and beyond what most cities were spending. The result, she said, is that most roads in Windsor are in good condition.

Fudge said it is very important to get roads fixed “for the financial health of the county. Roads are not only for our own use, but companies that would bring jobs to Sonoma County and look at how the county is run and what shape the infrastructure is in.”

Snyder, the Operating Engineers official, said his organization is the biggest local construction union in the nation and is somewhat wary of Fudge because of endorsements she has received from groups like Sonoma County Conservation Action, which “opposed a lot of infrastructure projects,” such as quarries and gravel operations in recent years.

The two camps squared off especially over two projects approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2010 — the Dutra Materials asphalt plant outside Petaluma and the Roblar Road rock quarry west of Cotati. Conservation Action opposed both projects.

“You can’t support roads and be against mining and asphalt plants. You need gravel to make asphalt, and you need asphalt to fix the roads,” Snyder said. “I don’t think roads are her No. 1 priority at the end of the day.”

But Zane defended Fudge, saying, “You can be pro-environment and care passionately about maintaining our road system and public transportation as well.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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