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Street Fight, Part 5: Case Studies

The Ongoing Battle for Better Bay Area Pavement

As we've seen, many factors affect a city’s or county’s PCI score. These include the size of the street or road network, the age of the pavement, climate and precipitation, traffic loads and available maintenance funding. One place where older pavement, higher rainfall and heavier traffic loads all come together is in Sonoma County, where PCI scores on a vast network of roads (including more than 1,300 centerline miles and over 2,700 lane miles) in the unincorporated portions of the county consistently have ranked among the very lowest of any Bay Area jurisdiction.  More than half of the county's road network is in "poor" or "failed" condition, and just 16 percent of county-owned pavement is rated "excellent" or "very good." The numbers add up to a road system firmly in the "poor" category, with average PCI scores of 46 for the network as a whole and just 34 for less-traveled county roads carrying a residential classification. 

Sonoma County: Pavement Problems Converge on Rural Roads

Save Our Sonoma Roads, a nonprofit citizens group established in 2011 to advance public education about pavement issues and to advocate for increased public funding of roadway maintenance, repair and rehabilitation throughout Sonoma County, asserts that decades of underinvestment in preventive maintenance and pavement preservation are responsible for the deterioration of the county's largely rural road network.

"I think it's a question of deferred maintenance," observes Craig Harrison, a rural Sonoma County resident who co-founded Save Our Sonoma Roads. "You can get away with deferring maintenance for a year or two, and everyone does that in their own lives. You have a short-term fiscal problem and you don't do things you'd like to do. But a year or two later you sort of circle back and fix it. But if you go on for a decade or 15 years, that little leak that would have cost you a couple hundred dollars to fix is suddenly starting the whole roof to collapse, and you're looking at a $30,000 problem. And that's what I'm afraid has happened to our county roads."

"In this county," continued Harrison, "the Board of Supervisors years ago established what they call the Primary Road System, which is the 200 miles that are most used and most traveled — and those are fairly well maintained. The other 1,183 miles or so are subject to irregular funding and are possibly destined to go to dirt or gravel in the next decade or two if something isn't to correct the situation. … It's an interesting problem, and very complicated."

Sales Taxes Strategy Delivers Impressive Improvement

The Contra Costa County city of El Cerrito chose to tackle the complicated problem of pavement maintenance head-on. In 2006, El Cerrito’s 138 lane-miles of local streets were in poor condition (single-year PCI score of 48) and the city had a backlog of more than $21 million in maintenance work. Four years later, the city had boosted its single-year PCI score to 85 and had trimmed its maintenance backlog to just $500,000. By 2013, El Cerrito's one-year PCI score had dipped slightly to 83 but its three-year moving PCI average skyrocketed to 84 from just 62 three years earlier. How did El Cerrito improve pavement conditions so much and so quickly?

"It was not even that the streets were bad," recalls El Cerrito Mayor Janet Abelson. "The pavement was gone. It was on its way to being a dirt road, that's how bad it was — because we hadn't had, for many years, the money to repave our streets. We surveyed our residents and said to them, 'Is there anything, if we did a measure, that you would want?' And overwhelmingly, the answer was: streets. We got the message. "

After launching a public outreach campaign that included citizens, city council members and public works staff, El Cerrito in 2008 won overwhelming approval of a half-cent sales tax measure for a Street Improvement Program. Within three years, the city had used $2.1 million in sales tax revenues — augmented by $10.5 million in bond proceeds and $1.8 million in grant funds —  to slash its pavement maintenance backlog from $21 million to $500,000 and had also resurfaced two-thirds of its streets, built over 400 new curb ramps and replaced 50 storm drain crossings. The half-cent sales tax created a direct, permanent and local source of funding that now generates an estimated $1.5 million of revenue each year for future pavement maintenance.

El Cerrito’s Pavement Program and Conditions, 2006-13

  2006 2010 2013
Single-year PCI score 48 (Poor) 85 (Very Good) 83 (Very Good)
PCI: 3-year moving average 53 (At Risk) 62 (Fair) 83 (Very Good)
Maintenance backlog $21.2 million $500,000 $500,000
Annual budget needed to maintain PCI $1.3 million $500,000 $900,000
Annual average funding level $250,000 $500,000 $900,000

Inspired in part by the success of the El Cerrito Street Improvement Program, two other Contra Costa County cities placed similar sales tax measures on the ballot four years later, with 69 percent of voters in Orinda endorsing Measure L, a quarter-cent sales tax to finance the repair, rehabilitation and maintenance of local streets; and 70 percent of voters in neighboring Moraga approving Measure K, which provides a full cent on each dollar of taxable sales for pavement repair and rehabilitation, and for storm drain repair. Measure K's impact was felt almost immediately, as Moraga used the new sales-tax revenue stream to support a successful bond issue that generated nearly $8 million for the town's pavement management program over the next three years; and the one-year PCI score on Moraga's 110 lane-miles of local streets climbed eight points to 58 last year from just 50 in 2012.

Edric Kwan, Moraga's Public Works Director, credited StreetSaver with helping build public support for Measure K. "StreetSaver was useful to explain the concept of preventive maintenance to the public. The initial phase of our strategy was to treat those roads that are already in relatively good condition to prevent them from deteriorating. Next, we will devote more of the funds toward those streets that require more heavy-duty treatments. It's important to demonstrate to the public that we are making smart decisions with their money."

MTC Chair and Orinda City Councilmember Amy Rein Worth also pointed to the role played by StreetSaver in her city's approval of Measure L. "StreetSaver helped us develop paving priorities that gained voter support. The software provided solid engineering information that aided our Public Works Department and our Citizens Infrastructure Oversight Commission in recommending a plan that made sense — both in terms of the road and street repair, and in the allocation of tax dollars."

Continue reading: part 6, What Can Be Done?

San Jose: Issues into Focus

San Jose’s network of local streets is the biggest of any Bay Area government. As with many other Bay Area cities, much of San Jose’s street system was built in the 1950s and 1960s. Watch as Transportation Director Hans Larsen takes a ride around his city and describes the uphill climb he and his staff must make to restore the system’s health and guide it toward a thriving, vigorous and productive middle age. 

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