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Argus-Courier Editorial

Self help for road maintenance?

Published: Friday, February 3, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 10:54 p.m.

By all accounts, rural roads in Sonoma County are a mess, and they aren’t getting better. The situation is so dire that county supervisors approved a plan in late 2010 that called for essentially abandoning almost 90 percent of county-maintained rural roads and allowing them to “go to gravel.”

Of 1,382 miles of county roads, the county only committed to maintaining 155.9 miles of “high priority roads” in high traffic areas. In October, the county approved the addition of 63 miles of roads to the list, bringing the total to about 16 percent.

That leaves 1,163 miles of rural roads with no clear plan for maintenance, a powerful reminder of how far we’ve fallen from the 20th Century ideal of wide freeways, clean streets and well-maintained roads. Sonoma County only received a score of 45 out of 100, the third-lowest in the Bay Area, in the Pavement Condition Index, classifying our roads as “poor” – just one step ahead of the lowest category, “failed.”

It’s true that infrastructure in Sonoma County and elsewhere across the state and nation is beginning to resemble a third world country, primarily because income, property and use taxes are so much lower than they were decades ago. You do, after all, get what you pay for.

The current recession has exacerbated the problem, but local roads were well on their way to failure long before the 2008 recession began. The main reason is that the primary funding mechanism for road maintenance, the state gas tax, has remained at just 18 cents a gallon since 1994 while the cost of repairing and maintaining roadways has increased enormously. Have you checked the price of aggregate or asphalt lately as compared to what it was two decades ago?

Never mind that it costs so much more to rebuild a road that’s fallen into decay than it does to maintain one in good condition. Unless and until the state legislature raises the gas tax to a level necessary to properly finance road repair and maintenance, which is the way we used to operate, the roads we travel on will turn to gravel and dirt.

It doesn’t make any fiscal sense whatsoever, but it’s how we do things nowadays. After all, no one wants to pay more for a gallon of gas, but we get mad as hell about potholes.

At this rate, we could soon see emergency vehicles and school buses routinely damaged by travel on bad roads, in addition to the wear and tear on commercial and private vehicles. Will our insurance companies require us to purchase “bad road insurance” similar to the flood or earthquake insurance we buy now if we live in certain areas?

There must be a way to maintain our roads in a climate of shrinking public tax revenues funds, and a new community group is seeking to create awareness of the problem and help generate solutions.

Save Our Sonoma Roads, also known as SOSRoads, is taking steps to get the word out and channel public concerns about bad roads. Founded by residents of rural Bennett Valley and Penngrove, where the roads are in terrible condition, SOSRoads is hosting a “Road Summit” on Wednesday, March 7 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Sally Tomatoes Restaurant in Sonoma Mountain Village in Rohnert Park.

The featured guest at the summit will be Phillip Demery, Sonoma County Director of Transportation and Public Works. Demery has an interesting idea about how to fund road maintenance that harkens back to the 19th Century, when rural roads were built and maintained by farmers who assessed themselves to pay for construction and maintenance.

On Tuesday, Demery will present a modern version of this idea to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. Under his plan, property owners could form “Road Maintenance Districts” and pay an annual fee on their property tax bills that would be allocated to road maintenance in that district. The districts would have to be formed by a vote of affected property owners and would have to be large enough to spread the tax burden among property owners.

We applaud SOSRoads for taking action to put pressure on the county to resolve this problem, and praise county staff for looking at all options.

While we are concerned about new taxes in a poor economic climate, we believe a vote of affected property owners would be a fair way to allow rural residents more control over how their taxes are spent.

This “self help” idea could also be applied in cities like Petaluma, which has worked hard to shake its mocking title of “Pothole Capitol of Northern California.” While redevelopment funds have been the go-to source to finance a majority of city road improvement projects over the last decade, the city must consider new ways to get the job done now that the state has pulled the plug on redevelopment agencies effective today.

Can a “D Street Maintenance District” be in our future?

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