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Our ruined roads
Jack Balshaw 3/13/02

It's no secret that our city streets are badly deteriorated. Every week that goes by we experience more cracked pavements and more potholes. Given the city's present financial circumstances, there is little that can be done other than put temporary patches on these cracks and potholes. The only alternative to this situation is for the city to receive a major increase in revenue dedicated to properly improving these streets.

This has been talked about at city hall for months and now it looks as if some positive action might be stirring. Unfortunately, the problem is so huge that there's no hope of completely resolving it. The cost estimate for repairing the streets and then maintaining them for 15 additional years is $140 million and $103 million respectively. This represents a cost of about $12,000 for each parcel in Petaluma, or an annual cost of over $600 per parcel.

The feeling, quite appropriate, is that this is just too much to expect people to be willing to pay. Plan B seems to be for the City Council to propose an amount that might be fiscally and politically feasible and only fix what major streets are in the worst shape. The numbers initially discussed are about 10% of what is needed. Say, $2.5 million a year. This would more likely support heavy maintenance rather than reconstruction.

This would probably keep the major arterials (Petaluma Blvd, Washington, McDowell, and Ely) in satisfactory condition. Local streets in residential areas might be kept in repair by the city placing a dollar-a-month surcharge on the trash bill.

The next problem will be with the bureaucracy and the politicians.

Public Works will have to try to maximize the amount of work that can be done with the reduced funds. They've estimated a 40% overhead rate for this project. This means that only 6 out of every 10 dollars would be spent on actual construction. This looks like a good number to change. Then they'll have to identify and prioritize specific segments of streets for improvement. This will be a fine line between fixing those streets most in need of fixing and making sure each voter gets some street segment he uses included high on the list.

The City Council then has to bite the bullet and recommend the size and type of the revenue generating mechanism. The smaller the amount, the easier to get it approved with minimum anger focused on the City Council but also with shorter lengths of street being repaired each year. And, each mechanism (sales tax, parcel tax, bonds, etc) has its good and bad points. This won't be easy for them.

From the taxpayer's point of view, there will be two issues. First, that enough gets done to make us feel that our streets are being taken care of. Second, that the money is spent in actual construction work and not diverted to other city interests. There won't be much direct diversion other than overhead, but other money that could be spent on street repairs might just be spent for other things. This is where we need a sharp eye on the budget process.

As much as some of you are bothered by Councilmember Moynihan, his interest in financial matters will be very important in insuring that any monies that should be spent on street repairs are spent on street repairs. The magnitude of this problem and the populace's keen interest in streets might even force some government reorganization if that would mean more money available for street repairs.

All in all, progress will be made in this area but the public needs to keep informed about how money will be collected and exactly how it will be spent.


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