Winter storms have brought welcome relief from years of punishing drought, but they’ve been a disaster for North Bay roads, carving out more car-crunching potholes, washing away lanes and forcing long-term closures in several locations.
Motorists here have long suffered with some of the worst roads in the state. Now, it’s even worse in places.
Sonoma Mountain Road — voted Sonoma County’s worst in an online poll last year, before the storms — is barely navigable at points due to torrential rainfall scouring away more of the asphalt.
The winding, narrow road that climbs Sonoma Mountain east of Rohnert Park and ends near Glen Ellen, looks like an airport runway “attacked by opposition forces” during World War II, said Barry Lawrence, a retired flight instructor who has lived on Sonoma Mountain for 40 years.
In Sonoma Valley, Vickie Mulas struck a pothole on Watmaugh Road so hard it flattened a tire on her Chevy Trailblazer. At the time, the rural byway was being used as a detour around flooding on Highway 121 in Schellville.
The highway, a critical commuter link used by 20,000 drivers on a daily basis, has been closed 20 times at the juncture with Highway 12 south of Sonoma this winter due to roadway flooding, according to Caltrans. That’s the most closures in recent memory.
“As a kid, once in a while I remember it flooding, but not to the extent it’s been flooding for a number of years now,” said Mulas, a third-generation co-owner of her family’s Schellville dairy.
The complaints are echoed throughout the region.
“North Coast roads and highways have been beat to hell during this wet winter,” said State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “The constant rainstorms have made a bad situation even worse.”
The storms have amplified calls statewide to increase funding for roads. California’s deferred maintenance backlog for streets and highways is $135 billion — not counting the $600 million in damages caused by winter storms.
The funding proposals boil down to Californians paying more out of pocket for road repairs and upgrades. Without additional revenue, officials warn, the state’s transportation network will continue to fall apart.
“We have underfunded transportation infrastructure for decades, and now California is paying the price,” McGuire said.
In Sonoma County, damage to roads from winter storms has been estimated at $16.4 million. That preliminary amount includes the cost of materials, employee overtime for emergency response and contractor costs for repairs.
Of the 23 county roads that sustained severe damage during the storms, four remain closed in certain sections. The list includes North Fitch Mountain Road in Healdsburg, Pine Flat Road east of Healdsburg, Geysers Road east of Cloverdale and Old Monte Rio Road west of Guerneville.
Several county roads are down to one lane, including along Cazadero Highway west of Monte Rio, where a roughly 150-stretch of roadway collapsed during January storms.
Officials say the roads are likely to require complex engineering fixes, which means there is no timetable for when they will be repaired.
At least half of storm-related damage — or roughly $8 million — can be covered by state or federal aid, according to the county. Any shortfall would have to be made up with local funds.