Public Works wants more money for local roads
Without the lifeblood of adequate funding for Santa Cruz County’s streets and roadways, county officials say the veins and arteries of auto traffic will continue to crack, crumble, and decay into a state of disrepair—especially in residential and rural neighborhoods. Local roadways have improved some in the past four years, but according to a report released on Oct. 28, the county’s current overall rating, or pavement condition index (PCI), is 57, or “at risk”—and not far above the threshold of “poor.”
The report gave unfavorable grades to roads across the state, not just around the county.
To compensate for inadequate funding, officials at the Santa Cruz County Public Works Department are constantly fighting for additional funding to bring the county’s roadways back to a healthy state.
“We put all of our resources and an extreme amount of time into trying to find grants to support our roadway system, but lately, because of the economy, there are limits on how much federal money is coming in, and there is absolutely no state money other than the gas tax coming in,” says Santa Cruz County Public Works Director John Presleigh. “We can make [the PCI] jump up if we have resources.”
Currently, the single biggest funding source for Santa Cruz County’s local roadways comes from the state gas tax, which falls considerably short of the county’s needs. In the 1970s and early ’80s, local roads got the same share of the gas tax as the highways. Since 1994, local roads have gotten about half the money that highways do. The tax revenue also continues to dwindle as more citizens move toward sustainable forms of transportation, like electric vehicles.
Unincorporated areas of the county also bring in funding for streets through property assessment fees, but even when combined with the gas tax, the funding comes up short, Presleigh says.
The money that does come in through these sources is used primarily to pay for road maintenance crews, which have gotten much smaller.
“We just can’t afford a large crew anymore, and we have 600 miles of roads, and a good portion of them need mowing, ditch cleaning, and storm damage repair,” says Presleigh. (Mowing refers to the cutting back of overgrowth and limbs that hang into the roadway.) “We have four mowers that are so antiquated they are all in the shop right now. We’re broke in the roads section, and most small counties, without being self-help, are broke, and they are mildly struggling like us.”
A “self-help” county is one that implements local taxes or fees to fund transportation. More than 80 percent of the state’s population lives in self-help counties, and the minority of counties that are not self-help, like Santa Cruz County, have the poorest road conditions in California.
“We are one of the few counties that is not a self-help county. You get more funding when you leverage local funding with the state and federal agencies,” says Eduardo Montesino, chair of the Santa Cruz Regional Transportation Commission (RTC). “A bunch of counties are scoring better than us because we don’t have local funding.”
Overall though, roads statewide are less than fantastic. The recent roads report, released by Save California Streets, lists the PCI for every county in the state and the overall rating for California, which has fallen from 68 in 2008 to 66—both of which fall in the “at risk” category. The report states that 54 of the 58 counties in California have either an “at-risk” or “poor” PCI rating.
County public works recently commissioned a poll to determine how residents of the unincorporated areas of the county perceive the efforts of public works, and whether they would favor any new taxes to fund road repairs.
The survey found that although most residents of the unincorporated areas felt that public works is performing waste management, the department is falling short when it comes to road maintenance. Seventy percent of respondents felt that there is some need or great need for more money to fix county roads.
After respondents were given information regarding the current state of roadway repair funding, 64 percent stated that they would vote yes on a quarter-cent increase in sales tax on the 2016 ballot. Any tax increase in California requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass.
When asked if they would support a half-cent sales tax increase on the 2016 ballot, 59 percent of respondents stated they would vote yes. The sales tax increases would sunset after about seven years. Respondents were not as likely to support a permanent tax.
When asked why they would oppose a new tax, some respondents cited mistrust in the way funds would ultimately be spent, and said that taxes are already too high.
“It’s going to be an educational process over the next year and a half whether or not the public is going to support local roads. That’s what it’s going to come down to. But we’re not giving up. We’re going to pursue every possible grant that we can, and try to fill every pothole that we can,” says Presleigh. “We got into a situation where the state legislators haven’t kept up with the needs of the statewide local agencies.”
With its recently released assessment, Save California Streets intends to show lawmakers in Sacramento how the current state gas tax is inadequate to maintain local roadways across California.
“California’s system for paying for its roadways is broken, and everybody knows it,” says Presleigh. “We need to get the legislators on board to do things differently.”
The assessment report was sponsored by a variety of state agencies to determine the current state of California’s roadways, the total cost to repair every street in need, and scenarios that would solve all of the state’s road woes.
The cost to repair roads increases exponentially the longer roads go without maintenance. The report projects that under current conditions, the backlog cost of repairs to the state will grow from $40 billion to $61 billion by 2024.
Under current funding conditions, the state receives about $1.7 billion annually for roadway projects. In order to maintain the overall PCI score of 66 by 2024, the state government would need to raise about $3.3 billion a year, according to the report. To bring them up to optimal conditions by 2024, the report also says, the state would need approximately $7.3 billion for roadway repairs annually.
California Sen. Mark Stone authored a recent bill that allows county officials to move forward to the ballot with its proposal. It goes into effect next year. In a statement to GT, he also supported changes to the gas tax.
“Because vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, drivers are purchasing less gas; however, fuel efficiency does not reduce the amount of wear and tear that vehicles cause to roadways,” writes Stone, a former county supervisor and RTC commissioner. “Therefore, the gas tax is a diminishing funding source for road maintenance, which remains a constant cost.”
Without additional funding sources on a state level, the report projects that California’s PCI will fall from 66 to 55 by 2024.
Although transportation agencies around the state have banded together to express their concerns to the state legislature, there are no additional revenue sources for local road repairs in the foreseeable future.
Locally, the RTC will soon conduct their own survey to find out whether the public is in support of a countywide half-cent sales tax increase, which wouldn’t be voted on until 2016. If approved, the RTC version of the tax would be used for various transportation projects in the county, not exclusively for local roadway repairs and maintenance in the unincorporated areas of the county.
It wouldn’t be the first time the RTC weighed a road tax. In 2004, the agency proposed a half-cent sales tax, two-thirds of which would have funded widening Highway 1. The rest was split between local road improvements, bike projects and other transportation initiatives. It received 42 percent of the vote, well short of the required 64 percent. Then in 2012, the RTC board contemplated a $10 registration fee through the Department of Motor Vehicles, but it decided against it, despite 69 percent support, citing the cost of the campaign.
For now, local agencies like public works are doing what they can with the funds they have.
“It’s just a matter of resources at this point—not having them, essentially,” says Presleigh. “But, boy, can we do the work when we do get resources. We put them right on the roads.”
PHOTO: Santa Cruz County Public Works Director John Presleigh says that the traditional methods of funding county roads aren’t enough anymore. KEANA PARKER