For the past several years, Marin County and several of its towns and cities (namely Larkspur) have been whipping boys upon the release of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s annual ranking of pavement conditions throughout the nine-county Bay Area.
How can areas of such wealth, many ask, have roads that rank worse than those of far less affluent places like Vallejo, which emerged from a lengthy bankruptcy in 2011?
The commission released its latest set of pavement condition index (PCI) rankings late last month, with Larkspur garnering a 44 out of 100, tied with St. Helena for last in the entire Bay Area. Though city officials say the Doherty Drive project will go a long way toward improving that score, having potholes strewn about many of its hillside roads doesn’t appear to jibe with Larkspur’s median single-family home price in 2011 of more than $1 million and a median household income of $83,000.
Larkspur and its 64 total lane miles of road aren’t alone. The 846 total lane miles in unincorporated Marin County scored just a 52 in the latest index. San Anselmo landed a 56, and Mill Valley scored a 62, hovering barely above “the 60-point threshold at which deterioration accelerates rapidly and the need for major rehabilitation becomes much more likely,” according to the report.
The answer, from local and county officials: “It’s complicated how we got here, but it’s getting better.”
“The main issue, not surprisingly, is money,” said MTC Chair Adrienne Tissier.
For one, the wealth of a given community has little to do with the quality of its roads in 2012 unless its local government has passed a tax or bond measure. That’s because property taxes, for instance, from which affluent towns like those in Marin derive much of their revenue, aren’t a factor. And what state and federal funding is available is doled out according to a formula that uses criteria like total population and lane miles, both of which are scarce in Marin, according to Bob Beaumont, the county’s director of public works.
The state's gas tax, which has been 18 cents a gallon since 1994 — hasn’t risen with inflation, so “your effective buying power drops,” Beaumont said. Add to that the rising cost of oil and thus asphalt, “The costs have skyrocketed. We can do less than half of what we did 20 years ago.”
On top of that, because so much of the county’s roads run through large swaths of open space like state and national parks, its population numbers along those roads are low, Beaumont said. For instance, one of the worst roads in the county, as any driver or cyclist can attest, is the stretch of the Sir Francis Drake Blvd. that runs through Samuel P. Taylor State Park.
“We ultimately get less money per lane mile than most counties,” he said.
High costs and stagnant funding sources mean that municipalities have to make road improvements a priority by passing taxes or bond measures to pay for them. Novato and San Rafael have passed bond measures to pay for road improvements, while Mill Valley dramatically raised its sewer rates to both fix an aging sewer system and to help pay for repair of the roads above it.
MTC uses El Cerrito as evidence that it’s possible for a municipality to improve its score quickly. El Cerrito passed a half-cent sales tax in 2008 to finance a citywide street improvement program and boosted its one-year PCI score from 48 (poor) to 85 (very good).
At a ceremony to mark the completion of the Doherty Drive project, Larkspur officials said more was hopefully on the way in the form of a tax measure in 2013.
"If we go to the taxpayers with a bond measure asking for $1.5 million a year for 10 years, that's $15 million, I can make the Larkspur streets' ratings go high if not the highest around. It's just a matter of funding," said Larkspur Director of Public Works Hamid Shamsapour.
Beaumont said the investment yields results. He points to the county’s 5-year, $20 million road improvement program that ended in 2011 and raised its score from a lowly 48. The Marin County Board of Supervisors last year approved a new five-year, $26 million road improvement program through 2015, paid for by both county and state funding sources. Beaumont said the county’s own assessment of its road has it at a 57 PCI in 2012.
“We’re playing catch up and it’s taking a while to catch back up,” Beaumont said.
Pavement Condition Index (PCI) for Bay Area Jurisdictions, 2011:Town/City Total Lane Miles PCI 2006 PCI 2011 Very Good (PCI= 80–89) Belvedere 24 81 85** Good (PCI=70–79) San Rafael 331 63 74 Novato 317 65 73 Corte Madera 71 73 71 Tiburon 67 64 70* Fair (PCI=60–69) Fairfax 55 69 68* Ross 22 64 69 Sausalito 52 69 63*** Mill Valley 117 64 62 At-Risk (PCI=50-59) San Anselmo 81 59 56 Marin County 846 48 52 Poor (PCI=25–49) Larkspur 64 51 44 Bay Area 42,659 64 66
* 3-year moving average score is an estimate based on inspections done in 2008.
** 3-year moving average score is an estimate based on inspections done in 2007.
*** 3-year moving average score is an estimate based on inspections done in 2006.