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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2019

The Care and Feeding of Roads

When I first thought about the topic for this column—local paving—I worried that it would seem like the proverbial broken record, skipping back into the same old groove, over and over (because I have written about this before, more than once). But then I dug into my archives and discovered the last time I talked about paving was way back in late 2013…almost five and a half years ago. That’s enough time to make it fresh again and to revisit the matter and see what progress has been made since the last look at it.

My column from December, 2013 was a top ten wish list for the Sonoma County roads most in need of new paving. Behind that list was this basic back story, covered in a couple of earlier columns: Sonoma County is blessed with a vast and dense network of little country roads—thousands of miles of them—ideal for cycling. But because of the complex formula employed in allocating funding for road work, this county ends up as the poor stepchild of Bay Area counties, receiving a fraction of the dollars some other counties haul in, even though we have by far the most miles of little roads to maintain. The result—for many years—has been that Sonoma County is judged to have the worst paving on its secondary roads of any area around the bay.

But that sorry report card seems to have been changing for the better in more recent years. Speaking almost entirely as an uninformed observer—not privvy to the inner workings of the County budget—I get the sense of a new and more proactive attitude about our little roads. No longer are those in charge simply throwing up their hands and repeating their old lament: “So many roads, so little money!” Instead they’re aggressively digging around for funds and putting whatever they can find to good use on our country lanes. Passage of an updated state gas tax helped to swell the budget for such work.

That is essentially where things stood when I drew up my wish list back at the end of 2013. Given that the public works department and the high hats who dole out the money seemed to be doing a better job of getting ahead of the paving backlog, I was asked by the head of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition to provide some input on which roads cyclists consider high-priority projects. My list favored smaller projects that would be relatively easy and inexpensive and that would benefit both drivers and riders. (You can get a longer take on my rationale if you read that column.) I wasn’t wishing for some pie-in-the-sky projects like King Ridge or the Geysers. Just some handy, everyday roads closer to towns. 

That brings us to the present moment and the ride I did yesterday where I found yet another of the roads on my wish list has recently been repaved. My primary reason for covering this topic again is to salute and encourage those on the front lines of road maintenance in Sonoma County: over the past five years, since that wish list was drawn up, they have paved almost every road on my list and quite a few other roads that I might have consigned to that hopelessly pie-in-the-sky category. While there are still many miles of crappy pavement to be found out in the hinterlands, overall, things are much, much improved from the dark ages of ten or more years ago.

Here’s a recap/update of the roads on my 2013 wish list and what has been done to them since. Again, refer back to the prior column for the specifics on why the roads were on the list and what needed to be done to them over which miles.

1. Willowside Road/Hall Road

Very popular biking connectors between the Santa Rosa Creek Trail and areas to the west and north; used in the Wine Country Century, Levi’s King Ridge GranFondo, and the Terrible Two. Of the two miles of Willowside, the southern mile—between Guereneville and Hall Roads—was nicely paved last year. The northern mile—between Piner and Guerneville Roads—is slated for paving this summer, as is the section of Hall between Willowside and Sanford, plus all of Sanford to Occidental Road.

They’ve made a good start on it and if all goes according to schedule this year, it will be a clean sweep off my wish list, with Sanford thrown in as an unexpected bonus.

2. Faught Road/Chalk Hill Road

Faught Road—one of the last “country” sections on the Wine Country Century—was paved to a beautiful, black satin standard three or four years ago. (It was so bad and now it’s so good! Woo hoo!) The nearest end of Chalk Hill got better-quality chip seal. Not as nice as a real paving job but probably appropriate for its needs.

3. Mark West Station Road

A smaller project on a somewhat obscure road. Some of the worst sections of cracks and potholes have been repaved. They haven’t done the whole road but at least fixed the worst stuff.

4. Healdsburg Avenue 

This is not actually a County responsibility as it lies within Healdsburg’s city limits, even though it looks like a country road. I speculated in the prior column that the city was waiting for some developer to come along and build off that road and improve the road as a condition of the permit to develop. That appears to be what is happening. It is currently all torn up in the middle of a makeover associated with a nearby development. No idea when it is supposed to be done but probably not too many months from now. 

And that reminds me that the City of Healdsburg has finally finished the big roundabout at the south entrance to town and that project ties into a new bike trail that leads from the roundabout to Memorial Bridge…a nice way to get around the south edge of town. But wait…there’s more: the city also completed, not that long ago, the delightful Foss Creek Trail that runs from near Dry Creek Road on the north side of town all the way down to City Hall…a great transit through the NW part of town.

5. Lynch Road

This one is right in my backyard on the south edge of Sebastopol, a couple of hundred yards from my back fence as the crow flies or less than half a mile by road, so it was a personal wish of mine when I put it on my list. I guess the powers-that-be agreed with me because the whole road was repaved to a high standard a couple of years ago. What used to be a perilous, teeth-rattling descent at the end of so many of my rides is now a silky downhill delight.

6. Middle Two Rock Road

This quiet lane west of Petaluma has been a minefield for bikes for years. Now some of it has been repaved. (This is the one I stumbled upon on my ride yesterday…the one that finally prompted me to resurrect the paving topic.) It’s a bit of a good news, bad news deal. They repaved the eastern end of the road, from Bodega Avenue to Eucalyptus and threw in a nice repaving of that latter road as well. That was probably the worst section of Middle Two Rock so it’s wonderful to have it nicely paved. And paving it plus Eucalyptus makes sense as perhaps the section with a higher traffic count. But the more lightly traveled western end of Middle Two Rock did not get paved and it contains some funky pavement that I know has caused at least a couple of nasty bike crashes. So that’s the bad news. But getting the eastern section done, plus Eucalyptus…that is good news indeed.

7. Canfield Road

This is another minor road more or less in my backyard: four miles south of Sebastopol. It had received the dubious benefit of a really slapdash repaving several years ago that at the time seemed typical of what the County was doing. Pathetic, lousy work. But now they’ve made up for that with a best-quality repave on the northern half of the road. In my prior piece I had said the southern end of the road could get by with just some spot TLC but that the northern end was where they needed a total makeover. And that is what has happened. In addition, they have recently repaved several long sections of Roblar Road, which is what Canfield connects to at its southern end. So heading out into the country south and west of Sebastopol has become much more pleasant lately.

8. Spring Hill Road

This is kind of a sister road to Middle Two Rock. They’re both west of Petaluma and both head out toward the coast, both with some really scenic miles but also with some really decrepit pavement. I think this is the only road on my wish list that has not been touched, except for the usual smattering of patches. This now probably ranks as the worst-paved road in the county, unless you count some really obscure dead-ends up in the backwoods somewhere. I don’t see it on the list of roads scheduled to be repaved in 2019 either. With all the good work they’re doing, I can’t quite see how this dreadful old road is not right at the top of their list.

9. Sonoma Mountain Road

When I got to numbers eight through ten on my wish list, I conceded that I was straying away from the obvious, relatively easy roads near towns, where higher traffic counts—for both bikes and cars—made them pretty much no-brainers. At this point on my list I was starting to think about the more exotic back roads, and for reasons mentioned in the prior column, this was a good candidate for a scenic back road repave. They paved one section a while back and have another section on the calendar for this summer. That still leaves some bad sections unimproved. But whatever they can do will be an improvement over what’s there now. They have also repaved some sections of Pressley Road, which is one of the better roads for connecting to Sonoma Mountain Road.

10. Everything else

This is where I went off the deep end and started waxing prolix about the really wonderful but really remote and esoteric back roads that make Sonoma County such a cycling destination (or such a year-round heaven if you happen to live here). I didn’t hold out much hope that the County’s still-strapped budget would extend to doing much on these obscure byways…but color me surprised: quite a few little roads have been dressed up with silky new paving.

Just a few months ago both Harrison Grade and outer Green Valley—from Harrison Grade to Hwy 116—received best-quality repaves. Add to that such out-of-the-way roads as Irwin, Ferguson, Furlong, Franz Valley, Franz Valley School, Jonive, part of Trenton, part of Trinity, Crane Canyon, the remote (other) River Road (near Cloverdale), Annapolis Road and parts of Skaggs Springs Road…on and on. If this litany of little lanes hasn’t already made your eyes glaze over, I could for sure send you into back road overload if I listed all the projects that have been done in the past two or three years or that are on the docket for 2019.

Some of them are quite frankly cause for puzzlement, at least for this observer, especially when bad old roads like Spring Hill and outer Middle Two Rock and St Helena Road live on in all their decadent glory. Why the heck is THAT road getting paved? I think it may have to do with divvying up funds evenly between all five of our supervisorial districts, even though some regions have more roads and more pressing needs than others. But I’m not going to quibble over those decisions too much. I will take whatever we can get and be happy for it.

This spring we are emerging from another of our bad winter storm seasons…not the worst ever but right up near the top of the list. These monsoon dumps of rain always put the public works department behind the eight-ball for a while. Saturated soils let go and slide down hills, either burying roads or slumping clunks of road down a hillside. The road gangs have to hit “Pause” on some of their scheduled road work and take care of the emergencies. Case in point right now: a few fairly large sections of the infamous Skaggs Springs Road—along the routes of both the Terrible Two and the Bad Little Brother—got trashed in the storms. The road is open, barely: several one-lane gravel sections. That will take some work to get it all cleaned up.

Fixing the emergencies takes time and money that would have, could have gone to nice new paving on other little roads. So some of the 2019 projects might get back-burnered for a spell. But aside from those little setbacks, we are doing great. 

When it comes to the places bike riders roll their wheels, one little fly in the ointment is the desultory pace at which the SMART folks are building the promised bike path adjacent to the rail line between Windsor and San Rafael. This is not on Sonoma County’s plate, so don’t blame them. This is the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit agency dragging their feet on the much-ballyhooed election pledge to build the trail in conjunction with the rail line. A lot of people in the North Bay were finally convinced to vote for the 1/4-cent sales tax to fund the project because of the promise of the trail running up the north-south length of the North Bay. 

Once they complete the rail link from San Rafael to the ferry terminal in Larkspur, there will be 45 miles of line for the trains. Yet only 16 miles of trail have been completed and plans for upcoming additions are few and far between. The SMART folks will offer all sorts of excuses for dropping the ball on this but the bottom line is they made a promise and they have not delivered on the promise. Cyclists are well justified in feeling they have been the victims of a bait-and-switch scheme: funds promised and allocated for the trail have been diverted to other parts of the project. 

This has been covered extensively in the local press, so I don’t need to beat it to death again today. I only mention it at all because it relates to places bikes travel. I’m happy to ride the few new miles they have finished, but more than a little bit restive about their snail’s pace on the overall project.

Well…setting aside the SMART slowpokes for the moment, let’s all raise our glasses or our chapeaux to the hard-working, underfunded road crews who are jazzing up our Sonoma County biking lives with so many fresh applications of inky black asphalt. Keep it up!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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