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Petaluma council mulls tax for street repair

If the streets of heaven are paved with gold, then Petaluma must be hell. Between the potholes, cracks, dips and deferred structural maintenance, most Petaluma streets are rated "poor" or "failed" by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that oversees transit in the Bay Area. And according to city staff, the problems will only get worse without significant additional funding.

"The council must decide if they are willing to let the city's streets deteriorate or if they want to put a tax measure on the ballot," said City Manager John Brown at a special City Council meeting held Monday. "Basically, I'm here to ask you if you're willing to ask the public for a sales tax increase."

According to an in-house report, it will take $2.4 million per year just to keep Petaluma's streets in the state they are already in.

To bring streets up to a satisfactory rating by the MTC, the city would need to spend about $6.2 million annually for the next 10 years — more than three times as much as the approximate $2 million the city currently spends on road repair each year. In 2010, city staff estimated that bringing Petaluma's road up to an "excellent" MTC rating — the highest possible rating — would cost about $117 million. The city has since decreased that amount to about $62 million, though they admit that amount of spending will only bring streets to a "satisfactory", not "excellent" MTC rating. "Satisfactory" roads are fully functional but don't have the lifespan of a road rated "excellent."

"But it's still far better than what we are at now," explained City Engineer Larry Zimmer.

At Monday's meeting — held specifically to address this longstanding issue — council members considered several proposals from staff, including increasing taxes and creating tax assessment districts.

"Every year it just gets worse," said Public Works Director Dan St. John. "If we maintain the current level of spending during the next few years, we won't even be able to keep our streets in the rough condition they are in right now."

Petaluma is home to more than 540 lane miles of declining streets. The city relies on three sources of funding to pay for road maintenance: The gas tax, a portion of the county's quarter-cent sales tax known as Measure M, and franchise fees. Though the state just increased the gas tax by 3 percent, increasing road costs in Petaluma and declining amounts of gas sold have made that a flat revenue source. After basic street repairs, like pothole filling and streetlight upkeep, there's almost no money left over for long-term street maintenance.

Across the country, local jurisdictions are facing similar infrastructure issues. Serious maintenance work on Petaluma's old roads probably should have started about a decade ago St. John said, but didn't. Recently, as in many other areas, local leaders have talked about the need to pass a sales tax increase to bring in more road maintenance dollars.

"Even if we were to pass a sales tax measure, we'd still barely be treading water," said Councilmember Gabe Kearney. "But we're already in a hole and we need to start digging our way out."


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