Trying to save county roads
POTHOLES PLAGUE many county roads.
Sonoma County got some much-needed but perhaps unwanted attention last week when a Wall Street Journal article detailed the abysmal state of county roads for a national audience. Craig Harrison and Michael Troy, the two county men behind the group Save Our Sonoma Roads, have tried just about everything they could think of – from posting YouTube videos of pothole covered stretches to hiring a PR firm – to bring the issue of road maintenance to the fore. And with the Journal, they found a national stage.
After reading an article on the trouble with the gas tax and its role in roadway maintenance across the country in the Wall Street Journal in September, the two contacted the article’s author hoping to talk about the problems with county roads – thinking he’d be sympathetic to their cause. Nothing happened – at least, at first.
A few weeks later, they got an email out of the blue from Vauhini Vara, another Journal staffer, based in the Bay Area, saying she wanted to come up to Sonoma County and see some of the roads for herself. Harrison and Troy spent several hours showing Vara around and talking to her about the issues. The article she wrote highlighted the fact that roads in unincorporated Sonoma County, when ranked on the 1-100 Pavement Condition Index used by civil engineers, were among the very worst in the Bay Area, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
The Wall Street Journal story was just Harrison and Troy’s latest salvo in a battle to get the deteriorating roads on the top of the county’s agenda.In the past couple of months, the group has stepped up its already formidable efforts to spread awareness of what they see as unacceptable road conditions and engaged the services of advertising and PR firm, A Bright Idea.
“We live on the roads we’re complaining about, and we are very frustrated by our experience,” said Harrison, who lives on Sonoma Mountain Road in Bennett Valley.
The genesis for SOS Roads was in two local community road improvement groups of which Troy and Harrison were a part. But the men came to realize that the problem was much bigger than just their own roads, and in fact, extended county-wide. “We saw we weren’t just going to solve Michael’s road or my road,” said Harrison. “We’re all going to solve them together or we’re all going to sink together.”
Troy, who lives on the notoriously pock-marked Lichau Road, is an avid cyclist who’s peddled all over the county. “I’ve ridden rural roads in a dozen other states,” he said, “and there’s nothing comparable to the conditions of Sonoma County roads.”
The primary issue, of course, is money. And the fact that there isn’t nearly enough of it to take on the challenge of repairing Sonoma’s crumbling infrastructure. At its most recent meeting, the Board of Supervisors voted to approve a one-time general fund allocation of $8 million to ad hoc road projects. But even the board itself has admitted this is little more than the proverbial finger in the dyke.
“We appreciate the efforts of the Board of Supervisors to try to remedy this problem, but it’s really and truly just a drop in the bucket,” said Troy.
The majority of funding for roads maintenance in the county comes from the state gas tax, which puts rural areas with low population densities at a disadvantage. As 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbit put it at that Oct. 23 meeting, “The state gas tax does not do Sonoma any favors.”
“All the supervisors are aware of the problem,” said Harrison, “but the issue is where to get the money. It’s very easy to let maintenance slip by when there are other pressures on the county budget. It’s sort of a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach, because it costs 10 to 15 times as much to rebuild the road if it hasn’t been maintained properly.” The two hope for – and the purpose of SOS Roads is to lobby for –redirection of monies allocated for other areas.
The man in whose hands Troy and Harrison would like to see some of that money go is mostly of the same mind as they are, but saving Sonoma County roads is easier said than done. “Once you have potholes on the road it’s pretty much a significant restoration job. It’s not just a matter of paving,” said Tom O’Kane, deputy director of Transportation and Public Works for Sonoma County. Large scale repairs on roads, where problems have been decades in the making, is prohibitively expensive, he explained. “A lot of these roads were farm-to-market roads that were just dirt and at some point someone came in and put asphalt on them, but they were never constructed as roadways.” (See related story on upcoming road and bridge projects around the Valley.)
No politician or public official is against properly maintaining the roads per se. “If anyone’s against it, they’re not going to be in public life for more than about five minutes,” joked Harrison. “They’re all for it, until they start setting other priorities … and that’s what they’ve done for 20 years.” What the group hopes is that it can bring enough pressure to bear that the worst roads get more than a pothole plugging.
On Wednesday, Nov. 14, SOS Roads will host a summit on the Future of County Road Funding from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Sally Tomatoes Event Center, Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park, with County Supervisors Shirlee Zane and David Rabbitt (who make up the county’s Ad Hoc Roads Committee) and Deputy Director of Public Works Susan Klassen. Audience questions will be welcome; you are encouraged to RSVP at email@example.com.