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Car wheels crunching on a gravel road may lyrically evoke life in rural America. But for some Sonoma County residents, it's more like fingernails on a blackboard.

"I'm from rural Indiana. I grew up on gravel roads," said Chris Hanlin, who lives on Sonoma Mountain. "They're not fun."

Hanlin is dismayed by the county's new plan to preserve the pavement on a select list of 31 heavily traveled roads, allowing more than 1,200 miles of roads to deteriorate, with some eventually being converted to gravel.

"Sounds like neglect to me," said Hanlin, who works from his home on Sonoma Mountain Road. "This is ridiculous. We are not a third world country."

Failing roads are a concern for rural residents, ranchers and grape growers, but less of a worry to the vital tourism industry.

Sonoma County, with the largest rural road network in the Bay Area to maintain, relies on a funding system weighted toward populated areas and diminished, ironically, by the move toward cleaner transportation.

Gas taxes, not property taxes, provide the majority of road money — and counties get a limited portion of each. There's no immediate remedy, other than moving money for other services into road maintenance.

Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said he's not happy with the pavement priority plan, noting that ranchers and rural residents pay "a pretty fair share of property taxes."

McCorvey, a West Petaluma cattle rancher, said country residents "aren't looking for freeways, but they want to make sure their roads are safe."

"You have to have good, passable roads," said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, which represents the growers who produce the county's $465 million grape crop.

Tourism is not in immediate jeopardy, since the lure of scenic splendor, wineries and restaurants will offset some bumps in the road getting to them, said Keri Hanson of the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

"I don't think people would stop coming to Sonoma County because of the roads," she said.

County supervisors unanimously approved the priority list two weeks ago, directing $4.5 million a year in pavement preservation work to 150 miles of roads, which represent 11 percent of the 1,384-mile network of roadways in unincorporated areas outside the nine cities.

Routine maintenance, including pothole repair, will continue throughout the network, but all the roads excluded from the priority list will get worse, officials said.

"They will deteriorate," said Steve Urbanek, pavement preservation manager for the transportation and public works department.

Sonoma County roads are notoriously poor, rated worst in the Bay Area for six straight years, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. Keeping them all in their current shape would cost $55 million a year, more than 10 times the county pavement preservation budget.

The 31 roads on the priority list are in far better shape, with a pavement condition rating of 70 on a scale of 100, than the network, which averages a 43 rating.

It's cheaper to keep up a good road than it is to rebuild a failed one, Urbanek said.

For example, a chip seal application of oil and rock to a good road costs about $100,000 per mile of two-lane road and should last seven to 10 years, he said. Laying fresh asphalt on a more deteriorated road costs $750,000 to $1 million a mile.

Buoyed by federal economic stimulus funds, the county recently chip-sealed Guerneville, Petaluma Hill, River and Mark West Springs roads, all on the priority list.

Valerie Brown, the Board of Supervisors chairwoman, said priorities are inescapable. "What's happening in Sonoma County is happening all over," she said.

Frank Bruce, who's lived on Lowell Avenue west of Cotati for 58 years, said he understands the situation.

"Well, you can only do what you can do," he said. "Money's tight. You have to cut back somewhere."

Lowell Avenue running east from Stony Point Road is on a list of 25 county roads in "very poor" condition.

It "never was a real good road," Bruce said, and is now taking an added beating as motorists use it as a shortcut to the Lowe's store on Redwood Drive.

Part of the county's predicament lies in the distribution of revenues from the state gas tax, which is 18 cents per gallon sold at the pump.

The state keeps half, and the remaining half is split 50-50 between cities and counties. Each of the 58 counties gets a share based 75 percent on number of registered vehicles and 25 percent on road miles in the unincorporated area.

Sonoma County suffers from having a comparatively low population (hence, fewer vehicles) and the largest rural road network in the Bay Area.

Marin County, with only 419 road miles — less than one-third the size of Sonoma's 1,384-mile network — receives about 55 percent more gas tax money per mile of road, Urbanek said.

"That formula puts us behind the eight-ball," he said.

Gas taxes account for $12.5 million for the county this year, by far its largest funding source for road operations.

Compounding the funding issue, Urbanek said, is the move toward more fuel efficient vehicles, including smaller cars, hybrids and electric vehicles, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As motorists buy less gasoline, fulfilling a noteworthy environmental goal, gas tax revenue will decline, he told the supervisors.

"That just hit me like a rock," Brown said.

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