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County roads still face a bumpy future

Published: Friday, June 29, 2012 at 3:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 29, 2012 at 3:59 p.m.

After Sonoma County supervisors — led by David Rabbitt and Shirlee Zane — unanimously backed a one-year, $8 million increase in road repair funding last week, advocates say they appreciate the boost, but argue it is not nearly enough to solve the county's most glaring infrastructure problem.

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Craig Harrison, co-founder of the Save Our Sonoma Roads citizen's groups, casts his shadow over a large potholes on Cavanaugh Lane.

John O'Hara/For the Argus-Courier

“With its recent plan, the county has addressed 7.5 miles of roads and that's great,” said Michael Troy, a Penngrove resident and co-founder of the countywide citizen's group S.O.S. Roads. “But there are still more than 1,300 other miles of roads that are deteriorating.”

The funding increase — which roughly doubles the county's annual contribution for road upkeep to $15.5 million — is meant to chip away at an almost $1 billion backlog in road maintenance. After the economic downturn reduced tax revenue, the county decided in 2010 to only perform basic repairs on 84 percent of the county's 1,382-miles of roads.

Rabbitt called last week's vote a short-term solution that, at the very least, will fix 7.5 miles of roads and highlight the problem with the county.

“We know we have a billion dollar problem and even though we don't have a billion dollars to solve it, we need to keep it a priority and keep it moving forward,” said Rabbitt, who represents Petaluma and the South County on the board of supervisors.

Rabbitt said the plan approved last week will focus on sections of county roads that serve both a community and economic purpose. While the final decision on which roads will be targeted remains undecided, Rabbitt said that his goal is to use the money in a way that gets the most “bang for the buck.”

S.O.S. Roads co-founder Craig Harrison said that though he is happy that the county allocated these funds, he worries about the long-term plans to tackle the growing county road problem.

“I give Supervisor Rabbitt a lot of credit for wanting to jump into this, but we're looking for serious solutions and wondering how viable this one is,” he said. “Where are we going in the long run?”

Rabbitt said that the county is currently looking into long-term solutions that include possible state, regional and local tax increases to help supplement funding, but added that they are not ready to implement anything at this time.

“It will be a mix-and-match revenue solution that will require figuring out what would work best to make sure the pavement index doesn't deteriorate,” he said. “But it's definitely a long-term plan.”

Rabbitt pointed out that to truly deal with the county roads issue, a multi-pronged approach will be needed that may include multiple taxes along with local residents taxing themselves to maintain their own roads.

“If you live on a five-mile stretch of road and there are only a few people on that road, I don't think it's realistic to think that your drive will be pristine all the way up to your door,” he said. “We have an incredible amount of roads to maintain and I think it's unrealistic to think that every road will be maintained at the same level.”

While Troy and Harrison both say that citizens taxing themselves is a viable option to help specific road repairs and maintenance, they disagree with Rabbitt on the fairness of only some roads being maintained by the county.

“What is the role of your local government?” asked Harrison. “It's easier if you have a road where there are only four or five houses on it and they are the only ones really using it, but what about a road with only four or five houses on it that a lot of people use?”

Troy contends that the erosion of county road maintenance — along with other county services — has been caused by not only a reduction in tax revenues, but also by an increasing demand to cover rising pension and compensation costs that began in the early 2000s.

Harrison agrees, and pointed out that while the county wants taxpayers to swallow several taxes to boost road repair — including a possible extension of Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax measure approved by voters in 2004 to help fund transportation, or an increase in sales tax, or both — that would create up to an additional $10 million a year, shaving 3 percent off the county's almost $400 million budget each year would generate more than that and suggested taking it from payroll and pensions.

“It's all a question of priorities,” he said. “We've seen stats that show Sonoma County has some of the highest salaries and benefits in the Bay Area. When did the voters approve that?”

Rabbitt said that pension reform is part of the overarching budget issue, but added that coming up with other sources of revenue — like additional taxes — needs to happen at the same time as pension reform.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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