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Must we improve our streets?
Jack Balshaw 6/6/01

A recent article indicated that Petaluma has the lowest rating of any city in the Bay Area on the physical condition of its streets.  It’s not clear whether this rating was the result of a complete engineering survey or of only a “windshield” survey sample of streets.  Either way, it should cause us to consider how things got this bad and to discuss solutions.

Streets can deteriorate unnoticed because it’s easy to ignore them for a long period of time.  They have a tendency to perform adequately for 25 to 40 years with little sign of distress.  Then, all of a sudden, a few nuisance pot holes swell into whole lengths of cracked and failing pavements. Normally, this wouldn’t be a major problem.

However, because Petaluma had a spurt of development on the east side starting 35 years ago, there are an inordinate number of arterial and collector streets deteriorating at the same time.  This causes the city to experience a high mileage of streets needing attention all at once and is the primary cause of our problem.  That and a program of deferred (i.e. neglected) maintenance in recent years.

The alternative solutions aren’t many.  Significantly larger sums of money than have been available annually will have to be made continually available for a decade.  This isn’t something that can be accomplished by simply diverting city funds from other present uses for a few years.  It will take a long term solution, probably an extensive bond issue or a citywide assessment district.

But, if the citizens are expected to pass such a bond, they need assurance that improvements will be made city wide on an equitable basis. Other cities in similar situations have provided their residents with a list of streets and the order in which they would be reconstructed. Perhaps our city staff should make such a list public now and not wait until 90 days before the election.

Streets to be reconstructed with the new funds should be listed separately from streets that will be rebuilt to higher standards or provided with additional auto or bicycle lanes.  Any bond issue for deferred maintenance shouldn’t be a vehicle to provide upgrades and amenities that weren’t thought necessary when streets were originally constructed. Additionally, it should be shown that regular maintenance money won’t be diverted from street repair.

A separate bond issue for new improvements could be placed on the ballot separately to allow citizens to objectively evaluate proposed modifications and improvements to the street system.

Elected officials and staff have two disturbing tendencies when given bond money to work with.  First, they want to take the existing money annually budgeted for similar ongoing work and divert it to other uses that fulfill their agendas.  The second tendency is to expand the use of  the new bond funds to undertake marginal but politically desirable “improvements”.  Locally, I could see street reconstruction bonds being used for beautification and bike lanes as such “improvements”.  School District’s are notorious for this, but city councils come in a close second.

If recent speculation that the City Council will put this on a special November 2001 election is true, they will be hard pressed to have much public education and input prior to the time they must approve amounts, priorities and spending safeguards in the final legislative language.  Without the proper safeguards,    improvements” could be stretched to include even the construction of Rainier.  As much as I support such construction, I believe that should be handled as a separate issue.      

I hope the public will be brought into the discussion early enough for there to be a full discussion of what will be done with any bond or assessment money.

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