Sonoma County pours $60 million into smoother, safer roads

Sonoma County’s rural roads, consistently rated the worst in the Bay Area, will get improvements worth $60 million paid for county revenue and PG&E wildfire settlement claim funds|

Sonoma County, tagged with a reputation for the roughest roads in the Bay Area, is winning plaudits from former critics for spending $60 million to resurface scores of rural roads and build facilities intended to enhance public safety while creating thousands of jobs.

Pavement on more than 43 miles of major and minor roads throughout the county will be repaired or replaced in 2022 and 2023 at a cost of nearly $40 million as the county continues pouring discretionary dollars into improvements for the nearly 1,400-mile road network.

A companion program will apply $20 million in PG&E wildfire claims settlement funds to 28 projects that include rebuilding roads, replacing retaining walls on roads needed for emergency evacuation and taking the first step toward a long-awaited permanent bridge over the Russian River at Asti.

“It’s an unprecedented investment in local roads (that has) never been rivaled in recent history,” said Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins.

Hopkins said the two programs, authorized by the board last week, addressed the “vast majority” of the roads people have complained about.

“People are going to see a lot of work over the next few years,” she said.

Supervisor James Gore said the spending represents a “nuts and bolts” approach to county government, recognizing that work on big issues — homelessness, emergency management and climate change — “cannot overlook basics like roads.”

“I grew upon crappy roads,” Gore said, referring to his childhood years in the hills outside Cloverdale.

Craig Harrison, co-founder of the gadfly organization Save Our Sonoma Roads in 2011, said he was pleased to see the board sticking to a policy course it set several years ago.

“Everything we see on there certainly deserves to be improved,” he said, referring to the project lists for both programs.

The PG&E wildfire claims money is “a windfall for roads,” Harrison said, paying for work on “a lot of roads people will care about.”

Hopkins credited Harrison for hounding the county to spend more money on deteriorating roads. “He held us accountable,” she said.

Harrison and his group were “front and center” on the issue, Gore said.

Sonoma County ranked last out of nine Bay Area counties in the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s latest assessment of pavement conditions with a score in the “at risk” category in 2019 and it has been ranked among the worst for more than a decade.

In 2012, the supervisors began spending money from the fund for general government on road maintenance and repairs, augmenting the required contribution to receive state gas tax funds, according to a county staff report.

A subsequent commitment in 2014 drew $8 million from the general fund and has since, through mandated increases, reached $12.5 million.

Funding for the two-year pavement preservation program includes more than $25 million from the general fund, along with about $14 million in state gas tax revenues and nearly $1.8 million from the county’s tax on overnight accommodations, known as the bed tax.

Since 2012, the county has put more than $120 million in general fund dollars into improvements on nearly 433 miles of roads, an amount more than double any other county in the state.

The investment “reduces maintenance liabilities, maximizes use of taxpayer dollars, improves public safety and improves access to services,” Hopkins said in a news release.

Selection of the 50 projects included in the pavement preservation program was based on traffic volume, pavement condition, relation to bike and bus routes and access to public safety facilities.

Projects on 43 different roads range in cost from $100,000 up to $3.5 million — for repaving five miles of River Road from Highway 116 to Westside Road — with 13 projects exceeding $1 million, and most are less than 2 miles in length.

Save Our Sonoma Roads noted that many projects will use a new asphalt concrete overlay that places a large amount of asphalt and concrete on top of a damaged road surface.

Others use a mixture of ingredients — existing asphalt, aggregate, underlying soils and a chemical — to produce a strong subgrade layer that receives new pavement.

The more expensive treatments are substituting for cheaper chip seals because some roads are so deteriorated that chip seals “would be a poor investment,” the group said.

There are only three chip seal projects on the list.

The five-year plan funded by PG&E’s settlement payments consists of 28 so-called “generational” projects that include paving and road reclamation, as well as construction of retaining walls, culvert repairs, sidewalks, river bank stabilization, road shoulder repairs and bicycle lane striping.

They meet one or more of several criteria, including a life of more than 15 years, reducing disaster risks and promoting countywide disaster preparedness and public safety and welfare.

Johannes Hoevertsz, the county Transportation and Public Works director, highlighted the replacement of five wooden retaining walls with steel and concrete structures on neighborhood roads in Forestville, Monte Rio, Rio Nido and Guerneville at a combined cost of more than $3 million.

The long-lasting walls are “critical improvements” on narrow, one-way-in and one-way-out roads in high fire risk areas along the Russian River, he said.

Should the existing retaining walls “fail during a heavy rainstorm people will be stranded and it could cause a multiyear road closure,” said Hopkins, whose west county district includes all five.

A $250,000 expenditure will pay for an alignment study of a permanent bridge over the Russian River at Asti, replacing a seasonal crossing built and removed each year by county crews at a cost exceeding $500,000.

The study would set the stage to seek funds for the new bridge at Washington School Road, which could cost $20 million with construction starting in three to four years, Hoevertsz said.

An Alexander Valley citizens group appears ready to support an assessment district that would cover some of the costs with payments from property owners, he said.

The combined $60 million road campaign is more than asphalt and concrete, retaining walls and a bridge, Hoevertsz said.

“It’s a huge opportunity for the department to build sound infrastructure projects that will also be a boon to contractors creating thousands of jobs in the county,” he said.

The PG&E funded program includes $30,000 toward a disaster debris management plan.

Harrison, the roads advocate, has transformed from critic to admirer of the Public Works Department and its director.

“They’re doing what the can with the resources they have,” he said

Asked to grade the department, Harrison said, “I’d give an A, even an A-plus.”

“I would have been happy with a B-minus,” Hoevertsz said. “I think we still have a lot of work to do.”

For a list of the projects included in Sonoma County’s $40 million pavement preservation program and the $20 million program supported by PG&E wildfire settlement funds go to:

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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