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.