A Bumpy Ride
Repairs were desperately needed for Monterey County--and then came the storms.
Thursday, February 26, 1998
If it seems to you there are more potholes on local roads than there used to be, it''s not just your imagination. Due to severe financial constraints, Monterey County''s Public Works Department has been putting off needed preventive maintenance work on county roads and bridges for many years.
The 1997 Grand Jury Report, released this January, detailed several aspects of this very serious infrastructure problem, noting that the cumulative deferred maintenance needs of county roads and bridges now exceeds $69 million. Asking whether "the priorities for funds to meet the many demands on local government have been assigned in such a way that preventive maintenance of the county''s roads and bridges has been neglected," the Grand Jury concluded with a resounding "yes."
The problem has only been compounded by the heavy rains and flooding that hit our area this past month. Most of the major road closures, such as Highway 1 from Carmel to Big Sur, involve state roads, but county roads and bridges have also been heavily affected.
On Feb. 24, county emergency services manager Harry Robins reported to the board of supervisors that the county has already awarded $1.7 million in emergency contracts to repair flood damage to county roads, bridges and culverts. That sum will soon rise to $2.5 million, and doesn''t even begin to touch the problem of needed road maintenance.
In fact, says deputy public works director Ron Lundquist, these emergency repair needs will only further delay the county''s efforts to catch up on its preventive maintenance projects. "We will be working for at least the next nine months just to repair the damage," he says. "It will be difficult for us even to be ready for next winter."
In order to compile its report, the Grand Jury interviewed county supervisors and department managers and directors responsible for road and bridge maintenance, and discovered that the problem has been known to them for years.
"For many years, we have been deferring essential maintenance work," says Gerald Gromko, director of public works for Monterey County. "The Grand Jury Report accurately states the condition of county roads and bridges."
The Grand Jury''s original report noted that the county public works department has shown a shortfall of $6.46 million per year for at least the past four years. For the past seven years, county roads have not even received chip sealing, a temporary surface treatment that does not add structural strength to roads but which fills in cracks and retards oxidation.
Instead, the report points out, the board of supervisors has considered various new highway projects such as the Prunedale bypass and the widening of Highway 156. "These glamorous new projects are tempting," the report states, "but needed preventive maintenance, mundane though it may seem, should have first priority."
Gromko agrees with the Grand Jury''s assessment. He even goes one step further, pointing out that his department has had to defer necessary maintenance work for longer than seven years. Five years ago, his department published a report dealing with deferred maintenance projects dating back the previous 10 years. "For more than 15 years now, we''ve been accumulating maintenance problems on our roads," he says.
As roads start to crack with use, Gromko explains, you''re supposed to put down one and a half to three inches of asphaltic concrete. "That''s the kind of treatment these roads should get, but we don''t have the resources," he says. "We try to do chip sealing instead, but since 1992, we haven''t even done that. We''re seeing more and more cracking."
Are any of our under-maintained county roads or bridges actually unsafe? Gromko says no, not for the moment. "But if you have a road with potholes and deep depressions, that can lead to an uneven road surface, which could contribute to problems controlling your vehicle," he says. "We haven''t let our roads get to that condition. No road or bridge in Monterey County is in an unsafe condition." He includes state roads, such as highways 101, 68, 156 and 183 in that assessment.
County Supervisor Dave Potter, who sits on the 17-member Transportation Agency for Monterey County (TAMC), says he was aware of the problem long before the Grand Jury issued its report. He went on tours with Gromko, and saw road repair machines that hadn''t been used in years. "I told Gerry [Gromko], that''s going to catch up with us soon," he says.
The Grand Jury recommends that $20 million per year be taken for the next four years from the public works department budget and shifted to preventive road and bridge maintenance projects. After those four years, the Grand Jury recommends steady funding of maintenance projects to the tune of $8-9 million per year. The department will issue its response to these recommendations by late March or early April.
Is this recommendation enough to solve the problem? Gromko says it isn''t. He points out that 500 miles of the county''s 1,260 miles of roads are "primary" roads, or roads that carry the heaviest traffic. These are the roads that will be given first priority for repair and maintenance.
One of those primary roads is Carmel Valley Road, scheduled for a five-mile resurfacing this summer, a $1.2 million project.
"Figure it out," Gromko says. "At that rate, $20 million a year will maybe cover 100 miles, more or less. We''d be very fortunate to get that much out of it, in fact. With 500 miles of primary roads to do, there''s your four years right there." The public works department won''t even begin to address the needs of the county''s 760 miles of secondary roads until that four-year windfall has run dry. Still, he says, the $20 million a year will be a "significant help."
Or it would have been, if not for El Nino. Flood damage-related repair needs will cut deeply into money set aside to begin catching up on those road and bridge maintenance projects. Lundquist says the Carmel Valley Road resurfacing project scheduled for this summer will have to be put on hold. It won''t happen this year, he says. The same with county plans to do chip sealing on 80 or 90 miles of county roads that need it badly. "It''s all got to be put off," he says.
Potter points out that the problem of deferred maintenance is not unique to the public works department. "It''s not just roads, it''s the whole county infrastructure," he says. "Deferred maintenance goes all across the board. Look at the county courthouse. Significant repair work needs to be done, but in the interest of a balanced budget, that has not happened."
In fact, Potter continues, infrastructure all across the state is badly in need of repair. Preventive maintenance has been a secondary consideration, he says, pushed aside in favor of new capital projects.
The $20 million per year will help, Potter says. In addition, local governments now have more discretion in spending state transportation funds, thanks to Prop. 45, which changes the way transportation dollars come to the counties.
Monterey County will end up with $33 million in state funding to use for transportation needs in 1998, Potter says. It would be nice if all of it could be used for those long-deferred road and bridge maintenance needs. Unfortunately, he continues, about $7.5 million of it this year may go to make up a shortfall in the $45.5 million Hatton Canyon Freeway project.
More funding for county road repair could come from the half-cent sales tax ballot initiative tentatively slated to appear on the November ballot in Monterey County. The ballot initiative includes funding to fix potholes on local roads. "It''s not just for the Prunedale bypass," Potter is quick to point out.
"There''s not a lot of transportation dollars hanging around," he says.
"It''s a problem we have to address, so we don''t end up all of a sudden in a state of collapse."