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The welcome sights and sounds of road repair could be seen at Western Avenue and Keller Street on Tuesday morning as a high-pitched beeping pierced the fog and a bright orange vehicle rolled out new, steaming asphalt over one of Petaluma's many cracked and pothole-riddled roads.

At work was Petaluma's five-man road crew, reduced from double that size before the recession, and tasked with keeping all 174 miles of Petaluma's aging roads in working condition.

A report issued last December by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which oversees transit in the Bay Area, showed just how difficult that job has become: it found that Petaluma would have to spend $132.4 million over the next five years to bring its network of streets back up to the recommended "optimal" condition.

"The December 2011 report was very sobering," Public Works Director Dan St. John said, adding that Petaluma streets now average a "poor" condition of 49 on a pavement rating index where 100 is best and "optimal" is 85 or higher. Petaluma's rating is down 6 percentage points from just two years ago, leaving only a third of its roads in "good" condition.

Public Works Supervisor Mike Ielmorini, watching his yellow-vested workers busily depositing, shoveling and spreading asphalt on Tuesday, summed up the city's challenge of keeping up the roads with reduced staff and funding this way: "There's no sitting around."

Last month the crew laid down 100 tons of new asphalt in Petaluma, though many disgruntled Petaluma drivers say they'd like to see far more being done. City officials agree, pointing out that most of the city's current funds go to band-aid fixes like filling potholes, which do not prolong the life of the road. But, they add, getting Petaluma's roads back in good working condition would take a level of staffing and funding that simply isn't available right now.

If the city maintains its current funding level, the MTC report found, the conditions of roads will decline even more over the next five years. Just to keep streets at their current level would cost about $7 million a year.

Currently, Petaluma spends about $2.5 million a year on all road-related activities in Petaluma, with about $1.5 million coming from the federal gas tax, $775,000 from the franchise fee charged to the city's garbage hauler, and $300,000 from the county-wide sales tax Measure M.

After taking care of basic street repairs like pothole filling and sign maintenance, there's virtually no money left over for long-term street maintenance, St. John said.

Serious road maintenance should have probably started 10 years ago, St. John said, adding that another part of the problem is that Petaluma's roads are very old and were built to withstand fewer and lighter vehicles traveling over them.

He explained that road repair follows a curve: roads in good condition can be maintained inexpensively for decades by simply applying protective sealers to the surface. But if they're allowed to degrade past a certain point, he said, they fall off a cliff.

"When you start noticing a road is failing," with potholes and cracks, he said, "it's already failed." At that point, the road must more or less be rebuilt —?at great cost. "A lot of our roads are at the start-over point," he said.

This is evidenced by the dramatic rise in the amount of money needed to restore Petaluma's roads to optimal condition —?it's risen more than 45 percent since 2007, from $90 million to $132 million.

On Monday, the City Council will consider whether or not to put a general purpose sales tax increase on the ballot that could generate upwards of $5 million a year. Most of the council members interviewed said that if such a measure passed, they would like to see at least part of the revenues go to road maintenance. But they also listed a number of competing priorities, like replacing decrepit ambulances and fire trucks, hiring police officers, funding nonprofits that help the city's poorest members, and building up the general fund's reserve.

St. John pointed to the need for another source of funding for roads and noted that Petaluma is not alone in its problems. "It's a national problem," he said, explaining that the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents on the gallon, which funds road repair at the national, state and local level, hasn't increased since 1994.

Before the recession Petaluma supplemented the gas tax with money from its general fund. At the best of times, spending peaked at about $1.4 million, with spending dwindling to about $4,000 in 2011-12.

An increase in the gas tax would also help, he said. That could take place at the federal, state or regional level. The regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission has the authority to place a gas tax measure on the ballot but never has, while the local Sonoma County Transportation Authority lacks the power to do so, said James Cameron, spokesman for the SCTA.

A local sales or property tax could also be levied specifically to fund road repair, but some council members expressed a hesitancy to pursue such a measure, remembering the dismal failure of a 2003 roads measure that would have imposed a utility tax on residents.

That included Mayor David Glass, who said he supported raising funds for road repair, but doubted whether or not a tax would have widespread support.

"I think it's a waste of effort unless we reach the point where voters see the need and come up with an initiative of their own," he said. St. John echoed the sentiment that there must be public support for funding road repair before anything meaningful can be achieved.

In the meantime, one of the only funding opportunities is grants. Indeed, road work will begin soon on a stretch of Sonoma Mountain Parkway from Wyndham Way to Riesling Road, funded by a $1 million grant.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)