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.
Officials could tap into an operating reserve of about $5 million for road repairs, but expenses are estimated to exceed that amount. Compounding the challenge, the county may have to front money for repairs because state and federal disaster relief aid is reimbursed.
“It can take a couple of years or more before we actually receive funding,” said Susan Klassen, Sonoma County’s director of transportation and public works.
Klassen has yet to brief county supervisors on the funding challenges. She said the board may have to consider delaying or scaling back paving work scheduled this summer in unincorporated areas of the county. The work entails repaving 97 miles of roadway.
The county has dedicated more than $65 million for repaving 300 miles of roads over five years through 2017. To date, 206 miles have been completed.
Klassen said the paving likely prevented worse storm damage in some areas. But she warned that it will take a lot more funding for the county to address long-term problems. County officials estimate the 10-year cost of rehabilitating and maintaining roads to acceptable standards at $560 million.
“Without a major influx of money, we’re not going to make inroads on catching up to the backlog. We just won’t,” she said.
Two years ago, county voters overwhelmingly rejected a general sales tax measure that county officials touted to help fund road repairs.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, who chairs the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and sits on several regional transportation boards, said the county needs to move forward with making repairs to the most seriously-damaged roads, calling the decision a “no-brainer.”
But Rabbitt said that work amounts to a fraction of the roadwork needing attention.
“It’s hard to imagine a stretch of road in the county that hasn’t been affected by the rain we’ve seen,” he said.
Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district includes western Sonoma County, said the storms have put a “tremendous amount of stress on an already-stressed road system.”
As one example, Hopkins said county crews filled 332 potholes along a 2-mile stretch of Jonive Road between Occidental and Sebastopol as part of a single work order. Hopkins shared an email sent to her and Klassen from residents begging county officials to add the road to the list of those to be repaved.
“The recent pothole fixes are at best a temporary solution as after two weeks some of them are already beginning to fail,” stated the email, which was signed by 70 people.
Storm damage has not been confined to out-of-the-way roads. Hopkins said River Road, the main thoroughfare along the Russian River, also is showing visible signs of wear and tear. More than 10,500 motorists drive the road - which officially is known as Highway 116 - through downtown Guerneville on a daily basis.
“If we get another winter like the one we just had, we better make sure our roads are passable and that our emergency services are able to serve our local residents,” Hopkins said.
Winter storms also exposed problems along major commuter thoroughfares, including Highway 37, which was closed for 26 days in January and February due to flooding near where the highway intersects with Highway 101 in Marin County. The route serves as a main east-west corridor for the North Bay from Vallejo, supporting 41,000 daily trips.
Crews made emergency repairs to re-open the highway Feb. 22. But those are only short-term fixes. Long-term costs could total more than $1 billion and include an elevated causeway or bridges to address flooding.
The problems affecting highways 37 and 121 through Schellville underscore major challenges with roads skirting San Pablo Bay. The problems include sea-level rise, inadequate levees and political waffling over who bears responsibility for maintaining and upgrading them.
“It’s a little bit of a juggernaut,” said Kara Heckert, executive director of the Southern Sonoma Resource Conservation District.
A 2012 district study identified short and long-term fixes to address flooding in Schellville. But Heckert said nothing of significance has come from it.
“There needs to be more political will all around the table to make it happen,” Heckert said. “Although the study says there isn’t a silver bullet, there are some things we can try.”
Funding for California’s roads has eroded over time for a number of reasons. That includes flat or declining revenue from gas taxes — a main source of repair money — a slump driven partly by increased fuel efficiency. At the same time, inflation has driven up the cost of road repairs.
The gas tax, which stands at 18 cents a gallon, has not been adjusted since 1994. Lawmakers also repeatedly shifted money from transportation accounts to prevent cuts to general fund programs during the recession in the 2000s.
Sonoma County also suffers from having a relatively vast network of roads but fewer state repair dollars, which are drawn from gas tax funds and allocated based on registered vehicles in the county.
“It’s totally an unfair situation,” Rabbitt said, citing the political power that lawmakers in urban Bay Area and Southern California have in maintaining the status quo. “The reality is, it’s probably not going to change. The legislators from the more populated areas are benefiting by that, so we have to be more imaginative and stretch the dollars.”
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic leaders of the state Senate and Assembly have floated different proposals for boosting highway funding.
Senate Bill 1 would raise excise taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel, increase vehicle registration fees by $38 and impose a $100 annual fee on electric vehicles to help pay for their contribution to wear-and-tear on California roads. A similar measure has been introduced in the Assembly.
Brown, who set an April 6 deadline for lawmakers to hammer out a deal, has offered his own plan, which calls for slightly smaller tax increases and a $65 a year “road improvement charge” for all vehicles.
An average motorist would pay an extra $9 to $13 a month depending on mileage, fuel efficiency and which plan ultimately is adopted.
That presumes Sacramento acts at all. Prior efforts at transportation funding have stalled amid pressure from industry groups. There’s also sensitivity to a populist revolt, such as in 2003 when a restoration of higher vehicle license fees helped fuel the recall of Gov. Gray Davis.
But advocates say failure to act would be disastrous for the state’s transportation network. SB 1 would generate an estimated $18.8 million annually for Sonoma County roads, according to a League of California Cities analysis.
“This would be the most significant amount of transportation funds coming into Sonoma County from the state in decades,” McGuire said.
However, the senator said he’ll only back the measure if companion legislation requiring the money to be spent solely on roads is part of the deal.
“The Legislature has to promise (Californians) that those funds from transportation stay with transportation,” McGuire said.
Brown also has requested $100 billion out of President Donald Trump’s promised $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan to pay for high priority projects in California, including completing carpool lanes on Highway 101 in Sonoma County.
Local officials aren’t counting on those funds to materialize.
“We’re going to have to take matters into our own hands, to one degree or another,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, a regional funding and planning agency..
County officials are pushing forward with plans to return to voters in 2018 seeking an extension of Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax approved in 2004, to complete the widening of Highway 101 through Petaluma and to provide money for local street repairs.
Smith said officials are considering asking voters to support raising the tax to a half-cent to generate more money. She said under that scenario, a 20-year extension of Measure M, when combined with the remaining years left on the current initiative, would generate about $1.7 billion over its term.
That will take some convincing. Rabbitt this week pinned blame for the 2015 defeat of Measure A, the proposed quarter-cent countywide sales tax, on poor messaging, which he said resulted in the initiative being “hijacked by naysayers.”
He said advocates of a Measure M extension will have to do a better job promoting the initiative, including explaining to voters the county’s limitations when it comes to spending discretionary funds on roads.
“Everyone talks about pots of money, and money under rocks. Please, show me the rocks and be serious about it,” Rabbitt said.
Smith, with the transportation authority, echoed that sentiment.
“You don’t get to build infrastructure and maintain roads on wishes and hopes. We need money to actually pay for this work,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadlinederek.