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Tens of millions of dollars have been poured into maintaining Sonoma County roadways over the past few years yet the result remains the same: The biggest pothole problem resides in the Bay Area’s northernmost county.

That’s according to a Metropolitan Transportation Commission report released last week rating the county’s pavement as the worst in the nine-county region. Combined, the condition of the Bay Area’s asphalt has slightly improved the past 15 years, but is still showing signs of serious wear and at risk for steep decline if major work isn’t done soon.

Petaluma was rated as having the worst roads in Sonoma County, with the county’s unincorporated areas and Cotati not far behind. The cities of Sonoma and Rohnert Park graded the highest, while Healdsburg and Santa Rosa fell in the middle.

The county faces unique challenges to improve roads that contribute to keeping it at the back of the pack in the region.

Just the unincorporated part of Sonoma County, with its roughly 2,700 miles of lanes, has one of the Bay Area’s largest road networks, behind only the city of San Jose. Because the state’s formula for calculating the county’s portion of California gas tax funds focuses on registered vehicles rather than the number of roadways, the county comes up short every year for how to pay for road repairs.

“It is a reality that we’re never going to have enough money for maintenance of our roads, so we do the best we can,” said Johannes Hoevertsz, director of Sonoma County’s Transportation & Public Works department. “If you choose not to pay for something how you should, then you have to adapt to the current conditions.”

In addition, the county is in the midst of recovery from the October 2017 historic Tubbs wildfire on top of snags from heavy rainfall and mudslides the year before. That puts identifying money for routine road upkeep further down the list of priorities.

The county has made small gains on its unincorporated roads through general fund commitments of $13 million each of the past four years — to go along with millions in gas tax dollars — but it’s a drop in the bucket compared with the $924 million it manages now in deferred maintenance.

Meanwhile, potential voter repeal in November of Senate Bill 1, which sets aside additional road maintenance money for cities and counties through last year’s gas tax expansion, could set California’s infrastructure even further back.

In Sonoma County alone, it is estimated that deferred maintenance on already distressed roads would reach more than $1.5 billion by 2027, according to the transportation commission report.

“The easiest thing to put on the ballot is lowering your taxes,” said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who is heavily involved in the region’s transportation issues. “At some point, you get what you pay for and if you don’t want to pay for anything, that’s what you get. That’s the choice in front of us, and if there’s another pot of money, tell me where that is.

Supporters of repealing the increase in gas taxes pitched such a plan last week, saying they have a way to raise the state’s annual road reserves by more than $2.3 billion, while returning taxes at the pump to levels before the increase. Members of the Yes on Proposition 6 campaign to repeal the gas tax hike favor creating a road repair “lockbox,” as well as added efficiencies and audits that target “colossal waste, fraud and abuse” through a future ballot initiative in 2020.

“Our complaint is that existing tax revenues are diverted away from infrastructure,” said Carl DeMaio, a former Republican councilman in San Diego who is chairman of the political action committee Reform California. “What little money that gets there is not properly spent. It’s so frustrating, and frankly politicians have known this crap was happening, but instead of fixing the problem they just raise taxes.”

John Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, supports the gas tax repeal effort.

On top of the money directed to local roads, the state’s estimated $5.4 billion boost per year from higher gas taxes and vehicle licensing fees also allots money for major Caltrans projects, such as completing the Highway 101 widening project between Petaluma and Novato. The region’s public transportation systems, including the North Bay’s Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit commuter line, benefit as well. All would be eliminated with repeal of the higher gas tax.

Rohnert Park, which has used its slice of the enhanced gas tax funds to push its road conditions into the county’s upper echelon over the past three years, also stands to lose $700,000. The assertion that cities are mishandling their allocations specified for road repairs did not sit well with Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who also serves as chairman of the regional transportation commission.

“That’s bullshit,” he said. “These monies … are protected constitutionally and go directly to the county and the cities. This is a straight pass-through to local governments. The SB 1 part is really something that concerns us were it to be (repealed) and put out of existence. We’re going to start to regress again if that’s the state of play.”

If voters repeal the higher gas tax in November, that would begin to undo the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ long-term plan of continuing to make annual progress on roadway and infrastructure improvements until the county is no longer labeled the worst of the region for potholes. At full implementation of Senate Bill 1, it could mean the difference between the county getting upwards of $12 million per year toward that goal.

“Year in, year out investment is how we see ourselves getting out of that hole and steadily climbing,” Rabbitt said. “Prop 6 would kill that, and you really have to question why one would do that and not leap horrible infrastructure to the next level. It’s a moral imperative to take care of our infrastructure, and we can’t just expect the next generation to take care of it. We need to get our roads into a condition where we could all feel proud of them and that are fitting of a state of our stature.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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