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Tough challenge to fix local roads

Anyone who's driven on county roads or Petaluma city streets lately could justly conclude that they are a lot like roadways in a third world country. Last year, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's report classified Petaluma's streets as "at-risk," and gave them a pavement condition index (pci) rating of 55 on a 100-point scale. The Bay Area average, which is alarming in its own right, is 66, or "fair."

County roads were rated "poor" in the MTC report, scoring a dismal 45 on a scale of 100 — dead last out of nine counties and 100 cities with the sole exception of Rio Vista.

Here in Petaluma, decades of deferred maintenance have left streets a mess. And with the recent dissolution of the city's redevelopment agency, which previously funded significant repairs and replacement of local roadways, the situation is sure to deteriorate even further in the years ahead.

Many city streets are at a point where resurfacing them will no longer suffice. Instead, they will need to be entirely reconstructed, which is very costly.

Resurfacing streets costs more than patching potholes, but it is a more cost-effective practice in the long run. However, when the city doesn't have the money to even resurface streets, the problem is getting much worse very quickly.

In 2010, city officials estimated it would cost $6 million per year just to maintain current road conditions in Petaluma, and would cost a whopping $117 million to bring road conditions to an optimal rating of 85. In reality, the money does not exist to do the job.

The primary funding mechanism for street maintenance is gas tax revenues. But with the sluggish economy, and more people driving fuel-efficient cars, those tax revenues have remained flat while the need for street repair has increased. The city has tried to supplement gas tax revenues with general fund revenues, but those too have withered over the last several years, leaving even fewer dollars for road maintenance.

At the moment, the city has no clear plan on how to fix its streets. While members of the city council are talking about placing some type of sales tax measure on the November ballot for unspecified purposes, unless that measure is a designated tax for street repairs and earns two-thirds voter approval, there's no assurance it would do anything to correct the problem. As council members mull a proposed tax, they might want to consider that El Cerrito passed a half cent road repair sales tax increase in 2008 that succeeded in bringing its road rating from "poor" to "very good" in just four years.

The county's road problem is even more desperate than Petaluma's. According to a report released last month by Supervisors David Rabbitt and Shirley Zane, 53 percent of county roads need to be rebuilt at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion over the next 10 years.

Credit Rabbitt and Zane with confronting the problem head-on, and for finding money for the new fiscal year that doubles -— from about $8 million to more than $15 million -— the county's general fund road repair dollars.


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