By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A small list of crumbling Sonoma County roads will get $6.5 million this year for badly needed repairs under a plan approved Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors.
Crafted by two board members, Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt, the strategy is the latest tack in the county’s now two-year struggle over how to pay for its beleaguered 1,382-mile road network.
The report includes a number of short and long-term measures, many of which were made public in June. Since then, Zane and Rabbitt, along with county public works staff, have worked on a key question: Which roads to select for upgrades this year.
Their recommendations, which came under some criticism Tuesday, settled on fixing 13.2 miles of roads deemed important to the local economy.
The segments lead to parks, wineries and other destinations serving tourism and agriculture throughout the county. Improving those surfaces before they degrade further will pay off, supervisors argued.
“They really are a reflection of our community’s health, and that’s why they’re important to us,” said Zane.
The spending draws on an $8 million earmark for roads that supervisors approved in June. It comes from a special reserve meant to cover delinquent property tax receipts.
The list of roads due for upgrades with the money includes stretches of Bohemian Highway serving the Russian River, Doran Beach Road serving Bodega Harbor, West Dry Creek, Westside and Eastside roads serving wineries and vineyards, and Adobe Canyon Road and London Ranch Road serving state and county parks.
Beyond simple pothole repair, those segments will get longer-lasting upgrades this year that the county terms “pavement preservation.”
Currently, just under 200 miles, or 14 percent of the county network, gets such long-term maintenance.
Under a controversial triage plan first approved two years ago, the remainder, more than 1,100 miles, now gets only basic and emergency repairs, an arrangement that officials have said would ultimately lead to most roads returning to gravel.
That spectre has fueled a political firestorm that supervisors have sought to contain, searching for ways to restore a greater share of the network to long-term care.
On Tuesday, they acknowledged that the temporary addition of 13 more miles was a drop in the bucket. The entire system is valued at about $2.5 billion. It has a repair backlog pegged at more than $920 million, according to the county.
The problem has developed over decades, as money from state gas taxes — the main source for road upkeep — has remained flat and support from the general fund has dropped from $7.8 million in the past four years to a recent high of $5.3 million, or about 3 percent of general fund property tax revenue.
Supervisors committed to making sure the general fund support would not drop in the future, while backing earlier recommendations by Zane and Rabbitt to explore seeking additional tax money for roads.
“A million here, a million there is not going to get us to where we want to be,” Supervisor Efren Carrillo said.
Carrillo also advanced criticism by some members of the public that at least one road on the short-term upgrade list, Lichau Road in the hills east of Cotati, was selected because of political pressure by residents, who have been actively lobbying the board for repairs.
Susan Klassen, the county’s deputy director of public works and transportation, said the road needed improvements to alleviate safety issues for school children visiting the Fairfield Osborne Preserve, managed by Sonoma State University.
But she later acknowledged in an interview that some roads were selected to balance funding among supervisorial districts — Lichau is the 1st District, represented by Valerie Brown — or because of a groundswell caused by political pressure.
“I guess you could use the word squeaky wheel,” she said, referring to the complaint raised by critics. “To some extent, all the work we do is like that.”
The remaining $1.5 million of the $8 million in one-time spending will go to safety upgrades, including lane striping, guard rails, test projects for road reconstruction, increased inspections and a revolving fund to help support the creation of road maintenance districts.
(Check out a list of the roads to be improved here.)
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@ pressdemocrat.com.