County to spend $200 million on roads

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday what they’re going to do about the county’s mediocre road system – they just haven’t figured out how to pay for it yet.

During their Tuesday meeting, supervisors decided to spend $200 million over the next 10 years to bring 700 miles of county roads up to the level of “adequate.” But it could be another week or so before they decide on the funding formula.

The county has 1,370 miles of roads and only 26 percent, or 360 miles, are considered “good” or “very good,” while 1,010 miles are considered “poor.”

That information came from an ad hoc committee, consisting of 2nd District Supervisor David Rabbit and 4th District Supervisor Mike McGuire, who issued a road report to the supervisors.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said the supervisors are looking at how to fund the ambitious program and what it will do the county’s road network.

“We didn’t have the funding conversation,” she said. “That comes next week.”

One option the supervisors can pursue is to put a sales tax on the November ballot.

But because the state has capped sales taxes at 9.5 percent, the county only has a one-quarter-cent leeway before hitting that ceiling. And a quarter-cent won’t raise the necessary funds.

Gorin said the supervisors have to act soon, because in order to get a measure on the November ballot, it has to be submitted in August.

“If we went for the tax, it would be a general tax and not a special purpose tax,” she said. “A special purpose tax needs 66 percent to pass, while a general sales tax only needs 50 percent plus 1.”

She suggested that there might be some sort of shared tax with the cities, much like Measure M, which was a quarter-cent traffic relief tax that was passed in 2004.

“In order to improve 700 miles of roads in 10 years, we’ll have to spend an average of $20 million a year,” she said. This year, the county budgeted $8 million for road repairs leaving a $12 million gap.

According to the report from the ad hoc committee, “the County should move forward with a local revenue measure to help finance the Long-Term Road Plan; explore financing strategies including bonding and distribution scenarios. Additionally, new State and Federal revenues directed to roads should be encouraged, such as modifying the state gas tax allocation formula, lowering the required voter thresholds for passage of sales taxes for transportation, or adjusting the cap on local transaction and use (sales) taxes of 2 percent.”

County roads fall into three classifications – federally eligible roads, significant rural roads and local community roads.

While the county hasn’t identified funding, it also hasn’t identified or prioritized roads for repair.

Craig Harrison, one of the co-founders of SOSroads, or Save Our Sonoma Roads, thinks it’s a good start.

“We’re happy it’s going forward,” Harrison said. “We’d like more road fixes. The county’s roads are in such a dilapidated state, this will take a long time.”

Harrison thinks that before the supervisors ask people for a tax increase, they should continue with funding the roads through the General Fund.

“We need more information on how it’s going to be funded,” he said. “Any tax measure is difficult to pass.”

He said he’s heard different numbers on the miles of roads needing repairs – anywhere from 700 to about 850 miles, and he’s not sure if the county is counting past fixes in the mileage. “We just don’t want any ambiguities,” he added, explaining that SOSroads has provided the county with suggestions. “When we look at the maps, they’re doing a good job of choosing,” he said.

Harrison said that three years ago, when Phil Demery was head of Public Works, Demery suggested the county eliminate more than 200 miles of roads that were used by five or fewer cars a day.

“What’s missing is how are they going to decide which roads get fixed in year one and which get fixed in year 10,” Harrison said. “You’re going to have to spread it around.”

If the decision is based on traffic counts, Harrison pointed out, bicycles aren’t included in traffic counts, and there are a lot of bikes on the roads.

“There’s a lot of criteria to be considered,” he added.

Harrison said the county has never had a project this ambitious. “This is a great leap forward,” he said. “The more miles the better.”

And, he said, people need to attend public hearings and speak up.

“We can only get what the public is willing to pay for,” he said.

He called the road plan, “a good beginning,” and suggested that further down the road, so to speak, when Measure M comes up for renewal, some of its funds should be re-directed into the roads.