By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After two years of extra funding, the condition of Sonoma County’s major roads — generally those serving as thoroughfares between cities — is improving, officials reported Tuesday.
But that has come at a price — the continued deterioration of the larger network of small country lanes and backroads.
“We have to prioritize, and that is a painful thing for all of us,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said.
Since 2010, officials have agonized over a strategy to repair the aging 1,382-mile road network stretching across the county’s incorporated area.
Last year, county supervisors extended the one-time funding boost, designating a total of $16 million from the general fund to chip away at an estimated repair backlog of more than $920 million.
The additional money has paid off in places: The 200 miles of major roads targeted for extra attention by the county in 2012 recently scored a 76 out of 100 points in engineering surveys, a very good condition, Susan Klassen, the county’s transportation and public works director told supervisors Tuesday.
Overall, the county has dedicated about $50 million in local, state and federal money to those roads in recent years. The moves followed years of flat or declining road funding, both from state and local sources.
But the dilemma the county now finds itself in is stark: Its minor roads — largely rural residential and farm roads — many of which were already in bad shape years ago, continue to get worse, promising an even steeper price tag when and if the county does get around to fixing them.
Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said the county hopes eventually to reach down to fix even those smaller roads.
“The roads did not get to this point of disrepair overnight,” he said. “It took years to get this way … it’s going to take years to go the other direction.”
The 888 miles of so-called “local roads” — about 65 percent of the county-maintained network — scored a mere 34 in pavement condition surveys, well into the poor category. A few even dropped into the single digits, considered a failed road.
Many of the crumbling back roads are little more than old dirt farm tracks on which the county dumped paving with no modern engineering, making them even more expensive and difficult to maintain, Klassen said.
It is “the biggest struggle to fund (small local) roads because they are not eligible for federal funding” and therefore have to be repaired entirely with local money, she said.
County officials say that within the next month they will release a long-term plan that contemplates a range of options to address the shortfall, including new or additional taxes.
Supervisors took another interim step Tuesday, directing the $8.6 million they allocated last June to repair 39 miles of major roads. The spending will focus on 14 roads across the county, including Bennett Valley Road, Stony Point Road and Mark West Springs Road.
Rabbitt said the county repaired about 63 miles with the additional funding last year.
Overall, the county road network averaged a score of 46, well into poor range.
“A major new revenue source is the only thing that will give us the resources we need to bring the local network wholesale up to an acceptable level,” Klassen said. She added that the spending authorized Tuesday would at least help.
The 2012 list of major roads focused on busy commercial and commuter routes as well as a patchwork of smaller roads considered vital to tourism or agriculture, such as Dry Creek and West Dry Creek roads and Bodega Highway.
Most of those priority roads are now in reasonable shape, Klassen said. She plans to return to the supervisors this summer with a revised plan, focusing on what remains to be done from the original list and looking at what roads should be added.
Several critics at Tuesday’s meeting blamed the declining road network on the escalating cost of public employee pensions, saying they are squeezing out basic county services.
Rabbitt, however, said the heart of the funding issue was the declining income from state gas taxes, driven by conservation efforts and fuel efficient cars, and the inequitable distribution of what tax revenue remains.
The formula for distributing state gas tax money favors the busiest roads, meaning dense, urban counties get far more money. Orange County leads the state in getting $157 million annually despite the fact that it has only 360 miles of county-maintained roads. Sonoma County gets about $20 million to maintain its 1,382-mile network.
“You give me $160 million and I will get our roads up pretty damned quick,” Rabbitt said.
That kind of relief seems unlikely, supervisors said.
To expect more help with road funding from the state or federal government “is wishful thinking,” said Supervisor Mike McGuire. “We are on our own in Sonoma County to deal with the shortfall.”
You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or email@example.com.
Bike riders pitch in to fill potholes
When organizers of Levi’s GranFondo wanted to bring the mass-participation bike ride to Sonoma County five years ago, they surveyed some of the rural west county roads and knew they had a problem.
The pavement on the proposed route was so potholed in places that it posed a safety risk to riders.
Organizers could have bailed on Sonoma County, but the ride’s founder, former professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer, is from Santa Rosa and has sought to promote the county as a cycling destination.
They could have asked the county to fix the byways on the route, but the Public Works Department has consistently come up short on such requests, upgrading only a small fraction of its 1,382-mile network each year. The repair backlog over the entire network is more than $920 million, according to the latest estimate.
Instead, after getting county permission, organizers hired their own contractor to fill in potholes. In the process, they forged a unique partnership with the county — a private organization stepping up to maintain public infrastructure.
“Sitting around tapping our feet waiting for the county doesn’t get potholes paved,” said Greg Fisher, marketing director for Bike Monkey, the group that runs the GranFondo. “We’re addressing safety issues so that we aren’t banging bike rims or car rims. We all use these roads.”
The organization also created a bit of good will for cyclists, who some drivers criticize as freeloaders, using public roads without paying their fair share for upkeep. Bike advocacy groups counter, saying cyclists also drive cars and pay for roads through gas and property taxes.
In the past five years, Bike Monkey has pumped $40,000 into county road maintenance and patched 48 miles, some of which are not even on the GranFondo route, according to Fisher.
As the start of spring ushers in this year’s cycling season, drawing thousands of riders to the area’s backroads and byways, county officials say they welcome the help with pavement upkeep.
The county focuses on preserving roads that are essential to tourism and agriculture and does not have the resources to patch rural residential roads, Tom O’Kane, the county’s deputy director of public works, said. Many of those roads are popular with bikers because they are not heavily traveled by cars.
This year’s county spending on pavement preservation, $8.6 million in total, will go toward main thoroughfares such as River Road, Arnold Drive and Petaluma Hill Road.
Those roads draw their share of cyclists, but the numbers don’t compare to the crowds now drawn to King Ridge and Coleman Valley roads — west county farm routes the GranFondo has put on the map and now helps to maintain.
Others on the Bike Monkey list include Cavedale Road, rising above Sonoma Valley, Sweetwater Springs Road in the hills west of Windsor and Mill Station Road through rural Graton.
Without the outside help, such routes likely would not receive much of the work needed to make them passable to bikes, O’Kane said. He did not mention conditions for vehicles.
“We’re not geared to focus on heavily traveled bike corridors,” he said. “Their organization has helped a lot.”
Though some say Bike Monkey’s contribution is tiny compared to the budgetary shortfall, bike advocacy groups say the gesture has helped the cycling community’s image.
“It’s like adopt-a-highway,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “It shows we care about the roads.”
Other cycling groups have also worked to improve Sonoma County roads. The Santa Rosa Cycling Club twice a year organizes a roadside cleanup along routes such as Chalk Hill Road and Dry Creek Road, said Sarah Schroer, the group’s president.
“There’s been some backlash to large groups of cyclists riding on rural roads,” she said. “It’s a good idea to do whatever we can as cyclists to say that we are all in this together. Let’s share the roads and the responsibility.”
Advocates for more road spending say that groups such as Bike Monkey are making a positive contribution, but they would like to see the county do more to fix its roads.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Save Our Sonoma Roads co-founder Michael Troy, an avid cyclist. “They’ve taken it upon themselves to fix the roads. They’re doing the right thing in our book. But it’s a sad statement about an essential county function.”
— Matt Brown