As the county struggles to fund maintenance of its 1,382 miles of roads, both local residents and elected officials are trying to come up with solutions to the ongoing problem — looking at everything from extending the Measure M quarter-cent sales tax increase to a possible county vehicle tax, to a long-shot effort at restructuring the state's gas tax allocation.
Officials are studying these options in response to the ongoing public outcry over the worsening condition of Sonoma County roads — conditions that some say stem from decades of neglect by county supervisors.
"This is a very deep hole that a generation of supervisors not doing their job has dug for us," said Craig Harrison, co-founder of the countywide citizens' group S.O.S. Roads (Save Our Sonoma County Roads). "We give the current supervisors credit for finally looking at the problem and allocating an extra $8 million to county roads last year, but in the end, how much did it help? It fixed 13.2 miles of the almost 1,400 miles of road that need work. We need a long-term solution now."
David Rabbitt, Petaluma's representative on the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said that certain decisions have left Sonoma County at a particular disadvantage when it comes to maintaining county roads. He pointed specifically to the California gasoline tax revenue allocation as a prime culprit. The way the state's gas tax revenue is distributed means that counties only receive 20 percent of all revenue generated from the sales tax on gasoline. While that typically is enough to maintain county roads to a drivable level, Rabbitt pointed out that Sonoma County has by far the most miles of county roads of any county in the state.
"The county with the second most miles of county roads has half that much," said Rabbitt.
The funding problem has been exacerbated by declining revenues and increasing personnel and pension costs in recent years, leaving Sonoma County with a backlog of road maintenance totaling between $600 and $900 million.
One of the most talked about and viable options being considered is the extension of Measure M, a quarter-cent, 20-year sales tax passed by voters in 2004, to help fund various transportation projects, including the Highway 101 widening effort. The tax was expected to bring in an additional $17-30 million per year but has fallen short of those projections since the economic downturn. As it stands, funding for the Highway 101 widening project alone is still $110 million short, leaving a stretch of the highway unfinished from Petaluma Boulevard North to the county line.
Many local officials have suggested extending Measure M, possibly through 2036. S.O.S. Roads recently conducted an unscientific online survey with about 625 participants, which showed that approximately half of those polled drive on county roads daily. Results from the survey found that approximately 67 percent of those polled at least somewhat approved of a 10-year Measure M extension on the condition that 80 percent of the funds would be allocated to county and city roads and streets. Currently, only 20 percent of Measure M's revenue goes toward local road maintenance.
Penngrove resident and S.O.S. Roads co-founder Michael Troy said that while the survey was informal, it did show that people are generally concerned about the issue. "If you look at the numbers, people want something to be done about the condition of local roads," said Troy. "Lengthening Measure M seems like a likely option because it's something people are already living with."
Rabbitt has been searching for extra funding since he started a county roads committee with Supervisor Shirlee Zane last year. He said that the committee and the supervisors are continuing to look at options to repair county roads, including a Measure M extension. But Rabbitt pointed out that such an extension is not a permanent solution.