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Rough roads ahead for Sonoma County


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Dozens of pins protruded from a Sonoma County map as residents marked crumbling or unsafe roads in their neighborhoods. There was a pin on Arnold Drive near the new roundabout and one at the other end near Leveroni Road, three pins on a small stretch of Trinity Road, more pins on Sonoma Mountain Road, Boyes Boulevard, Verano Avenue, Madrone Road – pin after pin after pin.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin asked Valley residents attending a Wednesday night Roads Summit, hosted by Save Our Sonoma Roads, to place pins on the map pointing out any roads they felt were in bad condition and needed to be a priority for repair.

“We hear almost daily – sometimes multiple times – about the deplorable conditions of roads in the Valley,” Gorin said in her opening statement, adding she hoped hearing community concerns would help set the stage for a forum next year to talk about a multi-faceted countywide plan to address road conditions.

In 2011, Craig Harrison and Michael Troy formed the grassroots organization, Save Our Sonoma Roads, searching for reasons why Sonoma roads are worse than those in other counties and for solutions to improve transportation and safety in the Valley. Along with longtime Boyes Hot Springs resident and community activist Gina Cuclis, the two put on the Wednesday night Roads Summit at Ramekins Culinary School, Event Center and Inn to engage the community in a thoughtful and informative discussion.

At 1,383 miles, Sonoma county’s road system is the largest in the Bay Area, but Sonoma ranks 18th out of California’s 58 counties in terms of gas tax per mile. According to an analysis by Save Our Sonoma Roads, 70 percent of California counties get less tax revenue, and all 40 have better road conditions. In June 2012, the Board of Supervisors concluded 751 miles of Sonoma County’s roads are in failed or poor condition.

But a California Local Streets And Roads Needs Assessment, conducted in January 2013, revealed the condition of Sonoma roads (blending the much better city streets with county roads) ranked eighth worst in California.

“The roads deteriorated greatly from the 1990 era till now because the Board of Supervisors – lots of supervisors and lots of boards – successively took their eye off the ball and dropped or froze funding,” said Harrison, adding that the county was focused on funding pensions and roads suffered during both economic booms and recessions.

Gorin noted a majority of funding for roads is allocated by federal and state governments and collected through gas taxes. The federal gas tax has remained at 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993 while maintenance and improvement costs have increased.

“(The United States government) has made a conscious effort at the federal level to disinvest in the highway system,” Gorin said, adding the government would need to increase its road funding by 21 percent, or $156 billion, to keep roads at current conditions; and by 51 percent, or $374 billion, to make only moderate improvements. Gorin said the Board of Supervisors is working to improve roads as they are vital to transportation, safety and the economy.

The evening’s featured speaker, newly appointed Sonoma County Transportation and Public Works Director Susan Klassen, is one of the people searching for solutions and seeking improvements. Inadequate funding of the roads system and the increasing price of asphalt has made it impossible to effectively fund maintenance and repair of the county’s roads, Klassen said.

“A bulk of Sonoma County roads are considered poor or at-risk,” she said, explaining how the county uses a Pavement Condition Index (PCI) to rate roads from “excellent” to “poor.” She added that, with the funding the county receives, it maintains roads on a priority list based on highest usage and significance to agriculture and tourism, as established by the Board of Supervisors.

According to Klassen, of the county’s 1,383 miles of road, 31 percent, those classified as major and minor collectors, are eligible for federal funding. That leaves 66 percent classified as local roads and 3 percent classified as arterial roads – nearly 1,000 miles of road – without priority funding. The county can only afford to fix potholes plaguing those roads.

Klassen said with the decline of federal gas taxes to the county, dropping from $4.5 million a year to $1.65 million a year, and with asphalt prices increasing while the county’s operational revenue remains stagnant, the county can only afford corrective maintenance for roads (slurry seals, chip seals, overlays) and struggles to fund improvement projects.

At one point in her PowerPoint presentation, Klassen showed a graph projecting road conditions from 2007 to 2017, based on the amount of funding received.

If the county continues to stay at the status quo, investing $5 million a year, the PCI will drop to the 25 to 30 range in 2017. The county, she noted, would need to invest $120 million to reach an acceptable PCI of 70.

Klassen said county roads received an additional, one-time only $8 million from the board last fiscal year and will receive more money this year. So far, the Board of Supervisors has committed to providing $5.3 million in general fund revenue annually for corrective road maintenance, Klassen explained.

One solution to the larger funding problem, she said, is to double state and federal gas taxes to fund roads. Another solution could be increasing franchise fees collected from Sonoma waste haulers for the impact their vehicles have on county roads, and possibly expanding these fees to agricultural haulers. The county could also allocate some of the quarter-cent transportation tax from Measure M, most of which goes toward Highway 101, to fund local road improvements and maintenance, or require an additional tax specifically for these roads.

Resident attendees at the meeting had an opportunity to address the panel, with many voicing concern and confusion over how the county prioritized the list of roads it maintains, including Arnold Drive, East Napa Road, Agua Caliente Road, Madrone Road and Bennett Valley Road.

One resident said it seemed as if roads in lower-income areas are neglected, which spurred a conversation about the age of the development in areas like Boyes Hot Springs and the outdated, quick-fix methodology of laying asphalt on existing dirt roads. Klassen said area income was not considered in creating priority lists for road maintenance, and Gorin noted any plans that come forward would include neighborhood roads as a priority.

Significant concerns were also voiced over the $2.2 million roundabout at Agua Caliente Road and Arnold Drive, with several residents questioning the reasons for its construction and citing safety issues. Klassen said roundabouts, which have been effective in Europe for decades, are being looked at as a way to alleviate congestion in highly traveled county areas. She said the county is looking at creating more roundabouts, particularly at the intersection of Highway 121 and Highway 116, and the community should give them a chance and learn how to use them.

Dave Brickley, who lives on Cavedale Road, said he wondered why Trinity Road is not classified as a priority road since it is so heavily traveled by those commuting from Sonoma to Napa, and he wanted to know about the accuracy and timeliness of county traffic polls. Klassen responded that, in the past, the county regularly monitored road usage every summer, but with limited funds there are no regular traffic counts and many studies are outdated.

Chris Steiner, a local road contractor, said he was excited to see the county taking action and working to improve roads. Hundreds of workers, he said, have been out of work and if the community pulls together and creates a plan to fund improvement, these workers would have jobs and road conditions will get better.

Sonoma resident Sharon Church thanked the panel for educating the group on existing road conditions and what needs to happen to improve them, adding she’d be interested in working with community members to start fundraising for improvements.

Troy reminded everyone attending that roads only have a 20-year lifespan and many county roads are well past that. “Get organized and do something or these roads will turn to dust,” he said.

Both Troy and Harrison urged Valley residents to stay informed, speak up about road conditions and get involved in improvement efforts. “The squeakiest wheel gets the pothole fixed,” Harrison said.

Save Our Sonoma Roads requires a minimum of $25 to become a member, but residents can sign up for free to receive its monthly newsletter. As part of its continuing efforts to highlight the dire conditions of Sonoma County’s roads, the group plans to host a “Worst Pothole of the Month” contest. For more information on Save Our Sonoma Roads, its newsletter or to find out how you can get involved, go to SOSRoads.org.