97,000 Potholes

That’s how many potholes the county Public works department filled last fiscal year. That’s a lot of potholes. It costs the county $17 to fill a pothole, which seemed like a reasonable price, but 97,000 times $17 is about $1.6 million, nearly a third of the Public Works Department’s $4+ million annual budget.

The problem isn’t filling potholes. It’s that they fill potholes instead of fixing roads.

Sonoma County is an awesome place to live. We make world class wine, food and pretty darn fine beer. We have internationally acclaimed artists and artisans, including stained-glass makers, woodworkers, potters, jewelers, leatherworkers and costumers. We have writers, poets and musicians, and some of the most diverse and beautiful scenery you can imagine. When you come here, you will instantly feel yourself surrounded by our warm, welcoming glow. You might break an axle on the way, though.

In 2008, a state report listed our roads as the worst in California. We’ve improved since then. We’re now only the 3rd worst, out of 58 counties.

So what’s the problem?  It would be easy to say the problem is money, and of course it is. The roads didn’t magically turn bad in 2008 as part of the recession, though. They had been going bad for decades. And don’t get me started on the relative safety of our 300 bridges.

That’s part of the problem right there. We have over 300 bridges, over 1300 miles of road, a patchwork, like everywhere else, of interstate, state and local roads. It’s easy to argue that the Feds stopped picking up their share of highway maintenance years ago, and it’s true. Of the property taxes collected, only about one cent of every dollar goes to roads. There is a tax for gas, that goes toward maintaining state highways mostly. The recession, rising gasoline prices, and more fuel efficient engines have reduced that revenue somewhat also.

1300 miles of road, though, is a lot, and our roads get used. Central Valley counties might have roads with one or two ranch houses at the end of them. They get used by the families and that’s about it. Our tiny two-lane roads lead to picturesque tasting rooms, traveled by eager wine-tasting tourists every weekend.

Members of the public who spoke at the Board, after they accepted the two-and-a-half hour report on the state of the roads, tended to blame big vehicles for the rutting, the potholes, and the disintegration. Propane trucks, garbage trucks, like that. Well, do you want your garbage picked up? It’s winter, do you want your propane tank topped off? Those are choices. Currently, “haulers” already pay an additional fee for road use, and that could be increased. That was one suggestion.

Another suggestion is an increase to the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) or so-called “bed tax” on hotel rooms. This allows the eager tourists to pay their share of road maintenance. The Board also plans to lean heavily on the State Department of Transportation for their share on the state highways and related roads.

Back to the root of the problem, however. The roads didn’t get this way overnight. In the decades I’ve worked for the county, the county has always had surpluses, even during bad years. Those surpluses got us through the bad years, for the most part. We have always paid for community services.  Apparently, though, we didn’t fix roads. With a $4 million budget, is doesn’t look to me like we didn’t fund this function. It looks a lot more like we didn’t plan for it, at all, for years, or more accurately, for decades.

The good news now is that we have a plan or the beginning of one, with a list or priority roads. We have some new blood on the Board now, and a couple of them make me crazy at times; but all of them seem to have an interest in infrastructure. Because they are looking, it is quite shocking how much is coming out about what wasn’t getting done. It’s scary and tedious at the same time (you try sitting through a two –hour powerpoint presentation on road-filling techniques), but it’s good. Let’s get it all on the surface, so we can figure out what we need to do.

And speaking of surfaces, they think they will fill about 80,000 potholes this year.

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2 Responses to 97,000 Potholes

  1. Chad Hull says:

    Beer you say? Beer from Somona? Please share some details. I’ll risk your crappy roads to visit a brewery next I’m in the area.

  2. Marion says:

    Let’s see… at least two; Russian River Brewing Company, with their award winning Pliny the Elder. (I can’t remember what it is–an ale, I think). Bear Republic Brewery, which is in the wine-centric but fun town of Healdsburg. I just asked Spouse; Lagunitas Ale (Petaluma); and we both think Anchor Steam is in Sonoma the town. Powerhouse Brewing is a micro-micro-brewery and I have no idea what their product is like (but they have great music. And there are a few others I can’t think of right now.

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