Napa Valley Register: Napa County beefing up fund to repair rural roads

December 8, 2017

December 7, 2017
By: Barry Eberling

Napa County is gearing up for a new rural road maintenance regime that will spend more money to smooth out potholes.

The county spends about $7 million annually on road care in the unincorporated areas. A recent state gas tax hike and the advent of local Measure T sales tax money in July 2018 could raise this to $17.5 million in 2018-19 and subsequent years.

That doesn’t mean that rural potholes will become an endangered species anytime soon.

County officials have said the road maintenance backlog totals about $150 million.

“It took us 25 years to get into this,” Public Works Director Steven Lederer told the Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “It’s going to take us a couple of decades to get out.”

Portions of Silverado Trail, Soda Canyon Road, Milton Road, Redwood Road, Mount Veeder Road, the Zinfandel Lane subdivision and Airport Boulevard are only a sampling of locations proposed to receive pavement-reviving treatments over the coming five years.

Lederer said people sometimes ask him how the county chooses which roads to fix.

“‘Don’t you just work on the worst roads first?’ The answer to that is ‘no.’ That’s not the smart way to do things,” Lederer said.

If a good road begins deteriorating, the county can seal it at a relatively low cost and preserve it, Lederer said. Doing a pavement overlay on a road with more deterioration costs more. Reconstructing a badly deteriorated road is the most expensive work.

The county uses a computer program to arrive at a mixture of seal, overlay and reconstruction work, Lederer said. If it did only expensive reconstruction work, roads in decent shape would deteriorate and overall repair costs would rise, he said.

Napa County is also considering floods and fires as it sets its road repair schedule for coming years.

The county plans to spend $15.4 million in road maintenance money through 2020-21 repairing winter 2017 storm damage to Mount Veeder Road, Dry Creek Road and other roads. It would rather use its own road funds in certain cases than to seek Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursements.

Chances of receiving FEMA reimbursements for these roads are low and going through the FEMA process adds to project costs, a county report said. Given the odds, the county opted for cost-savings.

Recent wildfires pose a different challenge. Lederer said it’s better to delay road improvements in areas where heavy trucks will be used to rebuild burned homes.

“Otherwise, we do the overlay this year, we actually conflict with the construction that’s going on and then the subsequent construction beats the road up,” he said. “Then what did we accomplish?”

In another example of a timing challenge, Lederer said the county plans to do road maintenance for the Imola Avenue area southeast of Napa. But Napa Sanitation District plans a sewer project in the area and the county wants this work to be done first.

Road pavement condition is measured on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 the best. Lederer said Napa County’s overall rating is 52 for roads outside of cities in the unincorporated areas. The county’s goal is a rating of 70 for major roads and 60 for the rest.

Lederer explained how the county – and many other California communities- ended up with so many roads in poor shape.

For California communities, the backbone of road maintenance money comes from the state gas tax. Napa County receives about $3.2 million annually.

Lederer said that the state raised the gas tax in 1993 and kept it at the same level for a quarter-century without adjustments for inflation. The recession and more fuel-efficient cars also affected the county’s road maintenance income.

“It’s like saying you need to run your household now on what you made in 1993, which would be insane for any of us, right?” Supervisor Ryan Gregory responded.

That changed when the state raised the gas excise tax by 12 cents a gallon in November.

County officials expect the tax increase to bring the county an extra $3 million to $4.2 million annually for roads – if it stays in place.

Opponents to the gas tax hike are planning a repeal ballot measure for the November 2018 election. A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed 54 percent of voters favor a repeal.

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