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Bill  On The Road

 by: Bill Oetinger  12/1/2013

More thoughts on paving, one mile at a time

First off, I want to apologize to all of my readers who do not live in Sonoma County. (I entertain the happy fantasy that there are a few of you out there.) This column has a decidedly local slant: lots of picky detail about little, local roads…a long read that I can't imagine would be of interest to anyone except locals who are familiar with the roads in question. I promise to go back to something approaching a global view of the cycling world next month.

Last month, I looked at the state of paving on our favorite biking back roads in Sonoma County. My takeaway from that topic: that this county has some of the worst paving on its secondary roads of any county anywhere…BUT that the folks in charge are trying hard to make things better. With the meager funding they can scrape together, they have managed to pave quite a few miles of the sorts of roads we love to ride. After years of dodging potholes the size of hot tubs, we are now, suddenly, amazingly, riding on silk (at least on a few roads).

This has been a hot topic in our bike club. About once a week, someone will post an excited note to the club’s e-mail chat list, announcing the discovery of yet another section of sweet new pavement replacing some dreadful old minefield of patches and cracks. Occasionally these threads morph into more protracted discussions about paving and paying for paving. I've been known to stick my oar in on a few of these threads. After one such discussion, I was approached by Gary Hellfrich, the leader of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, our home-grown advocacy group. He wanted to know if I would be willing to meet with him and a few other interested parties to draw up a wish list of road projects we'd like to see the county tackle next.

I declined his invitation, not because the subject is not dear to my heart, but because I hate sitting in meetings, and because, at that moment, I was buried with other projects. (And not, I might add, because I don't like Gary. I think he's a huge asset for cycling interests in the region. I think the world of him and what he's doing with the SCBC.) But I promised him I would keep his wish list in mind and that when I had a little spare bandwidth, I would draw up my own personal list of roads I would like the county to work on, sooner rather than later. Now I'm killing two birds with one stone: I'm writing this column in the form of a list of roads I want worked on, and I will make sure Gary sees it, with the hope that he will pass it along to the folks who might actually be able to put the boots (and paving machines) on the ground to make it happen.

Gary had some specific guidelines in mind when he asked for our input on this. Bearing in mind the county's budgetary challenges, and their understandable need to devote more attention to more "important" (busier) roads first, our wish list roads were not to be those pie-in-the-sky back roads that are at the heart and soul of what makes this county such a cycling mecca. I'm talking about the one-lane, meandering mountain tracks that have become so famous in recent years. Those iconic byways, so perfect for biking, are simply beyond the pale when it comes to anything the county can manage right now, even with the best will in the world.

No, the road projects we were tasked with identifying are going to have to be simpler and somewhat less romantic and quixotic challenges. We want to suggest roads to the works crews that are everyday roads; that are as useful for moving traffic around as they are for entertaining cyclists. I also want the roads on my list to be realistic projects: bite-size undertakings that would be relatively easy and inexpensive to do and where we would all get a lot of bang for the buck. I haven't completely given up on some of those more exotic, esoteric roads up in the hills though. A few of them are down near the bottom of my list. But the list begins with the easiest, most accessible projects…the low-hanging fruit of the paving world. Also, in case it's not obvious, to be included on this list, the roads in question must at present have really lousy pavement.

One last comment before I begin my list. When I began thinking about this subject, the number one project on my wish list was a short section of Westside Road near Healdsburg, from north of Sweetwater Springs to south of Felta. It has the worst paving of any major road in the county: cracked slabs of concrete laid down during the Coolidge administration, with gaping seams between the slabs that can and do grab bike wheels and take riders down. It's purely miserable and has been at the top of every cyclist's list of roads most needing to be fixed pretty much forever. But guess what…put that "has the worst paving" into the past tense. The latest good news on the local paving front is that this horrible section has finally been paved over with the nicest, inky black asphalt and those awful old concrete slabs and their wheel-grabbing seams are now just a fading memory.

If our works crews can lay that old demon to rest, who knows what other magic they might have in store for us? To help them along with their continuing wave of paving, here are my suggestions...

1. Willowside Road/Hall Road

This is all of Willowside, from Piner to Hall, and Hall from Willowside west to Sanford. Willowside is 2 miles and that section of Hall is 1 mile, so 3 miles total.

This is the classic example of the kind of project that could be a win-win for bikes, for cars, for the county. Both roads are handy, medium-busy roads for car traffic, acting as a dodge around Hwy 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, so their maintenance ought to be justified strictly in terms of automotive load. But they've useful for cyclists too. The Santa Rosa Creek Trail, heading west out of downtown Santa Rosa, dumps out onto Willowside, where you have to continue your two-wheeled journey on these two roads. The Wine Country Century uses both roads. The King Ridge GranFondo uses them both as well. The Terrible Two Double Century uses Hall.

(You may think it's frivolous to mention cycling events such as these as reasons for repaving a road. I beg to differ. Cycle-tourism is now one of the biggest tourist draws in the county, right up there with wine tourism in bringing revenue to the county. It only makes sense to offer those visiting cyclists a positive experience while they're here, and that includes gliding along on smooth pavement, as opposed to dodging around cracks and potholes and shoals of crumbling gravel.)

As noted above, these roads make the list because they currently have crappy pavement. Both roads are straight and nearly flat. Repaving them should not present the paving contractors with any major challenges.

2. Faught Road/Chalk Hill Road

Faught Road, from Carriage Lane in Larkfield, is 2.3 miles long to the junction with Chalk Hill. Chalk Hill runs for 8 miles to Hwy 128 in Alexander Valley. However, in this list, I am mostly concerned with approximately the first 3 miles of Chalk Hill. Together, these roads form one of the best, simplest gateways from the Santa Rosa-Windsor population centers for heading out into the wine country. It works equally well for cyclists and for wine tourists.

Faught, in particular, has terrible pavement. It comes up at about mile 96 of the Wine Country Century, and it's a tough slog for weary riders at the end of the day to jounce along over all of its endless bumps and lumps, its cracks and crazing. It's not great in a car either.

Chalk Hill's pavement varies from decent to decrepit, with the worst patches in those first three miles. Given the county's limited resources, I'd suggest Faught should get a total repave, but Chalk Hill could get by with some fairly extensive sections of repaving, but not a wall-to-wall do-over.

3. Mark West Station Road

No, not Mark West Springs Road. That much busier road received a lovely new paving job a while back. It's now a delight on a bike or in a car. Mark West Station is a smaller, quieter road that connects Slusser Road and Windsor Road on one end to Starr Road and Trenton-Healdsburg Road on the other end. It's pleasant enough, if not spectacular, but it's main attraction is that it ties all those other roads together. It's another gateway road, funneling riders (and wine tourists) out of northern Santa Rosa and Windsor--the whole Hwy 101 corridor, really--out to the Russian River at Wohler Bridge. It is part of the Wine Country Century too.

But it has dismal pavement. It's 2.2 miles, end to end. Not all of it is awful, but much of it is, and the overall effect is pretty bad.

4. Healdsburg Avenue (from Simi Winery in Healdsburg to Alexander Valley Road)

This half-mile long section of road heading north out of Healdsburg may or may not belong on this list, which is directed primarily at roads in the unincorporated parts of the county. More than half of this section falls within the Healdsburg city limits, so is not the county's problem. But it's just begging to be fixed, so it's on the list anyway.

It's a hugely important access road for cars and bikes both, leaving that most popular wine country town and heading for the vineyards (and the casino) in Alexander Valley. Unfortunately, it sports some of the worst paving in the county. This half-mile stretch crosses something of a no-man's land between the town's northern suburban fringe and the rural residential belt beyond. As far as I can see, there are no "addresses" along this stretch. No businesses and no homes, aside from one gravel drive leading back into the hills.

Perhaps the city is waiting for some sort of development here? Perhaps they want some future developer to pay to bring this road up to modern specs? But folks, the future is now. We can't wait for something that might happen some years down the road. This road needs to be fixed…now.

5. Lynch Road

Lynch is a 1-mile long road running along the southern border of the town of Sebastopol connecting Pleasant Hill Road and Hwy 116. It's another handy gateway road for cyclists, providing a simple route from Sebastopol (or from Santa Rosa via Sebastopol) out to the great countryside to the southwest, to Freestone, Valley Ford, and Tomales, and all the great roads between them. It's also a handy bypass around the town, used frequently by motorists wanting to dodge congestion around the Hwy 12-Hwy 116 junction in the center of town.

So it's popular with motorists and cyclists alike. But it has funky, chunky old pavement…not nice for cars or bikes. There is a short section in the middle, within the city limits, that is in excellent shape, so the part needing repaving is actually only about three-quarters of a mile.

6. Middle Two Rock Road

Now we're starting to look at real country roads, where I am less able to make a compelling case for repaving, based on the needs of both motorists and cyclists. Sure, cars use this road (and the ones that follow), but there are better highways nearby, so the main beneficiaries of paving in these cases, aside from residents along the roads, are going to be bikers.

Middle Two Rock forks off from busy Bodega Avenue on the western edge of Petaluma. After 4.4 miles, it rejoins the same highway out toward the village of Two Rock. Over most of its length, it has atrocious pavement that goes beyond being just unpleasant and borders on lethal (for riders). I know of two especially nasty bike crashes caused by this pavement.

This is an elderly road, sporting exactly the same sort of prehistoric concrete slabs as that notorious section of Westside Road mentioned above. The slabs are cracked and shifted, with wicked, wheel-grabbing cracks and seams, and the shoulders are a slapdash of asphalt patches. It's dreadful.

Actually, the western end of the road is not dreadful. It's not great, but by Sonoma County standards is passable, and could probably get by with just some ambitious patching. But the eastern 3 miles, beginning at Bodega Avenue, are truly terrible and need a full repave.

7. Canfield Road

Canfield Road runs for 2.4 mildly hilly miles between Bloomfield Road and Roblar Road, SW of Sebastopol. It's one of those wonderful roads you get to if you take Lynch Road out of town, and it leads to Roblar, which leads to so many other good roads…

The southern half of the road, from Roblar to the junction with Blank Road, is not great, but is probably acceptable, with just a routine level of maintenance. But the northern section, between Blank and Bloomfield, is terrible…a classic example of what the county calls a "patch-on-patch" surface (in other words, a surface at this point that consists almost entirely of patches, with little original paving to be seen).

In my dreams, the whole 2.4-mile road would be repaved. But in the real world of pinched pennies, I'd be happy to see just the northern end--1.2 miles--repaved, with the southern end getting spot applications of TLC.

8. Spring Hill Road

The Santa Rosa newspaper ran an on-line poll a while back to name the worst paved roads in the county. It ended up being a near tie between this road and Sonoma Mountain Road, the next one on my wish list.

Spring Hill runs north from the north edge of Petaluma (at the Western/Chileno Valley junction) for 7 miles to the town of Two Rock. It's Middle Two Rock Road's big brother. As is the case with Middle Two Rock, most of the through traffic will be on Bodega Avenue, just over the next ridge. So we can't justify this repaving as being beneficial for auto traffic as well as for cyclists. Of course cars use it, and their drivers will love new paving. But the big winners would be bikers if this road were repaved.

As it is now, it is very much worthy of its new status as one of the worst roads in the county. I don't think every yard of it is awful, and I'm not sure a total repave from one end to the other is indicated. But where it is bad, it is very bad, and probably in those sections, full repaving should be done, for some number of miles.

9. Sonoma Mountain Road

This very hilly road runs for 7.6 miles from Bennett Valley Road, east of Santa Rosa, to Warm Springs Road, halfway between Kenwood and Glen Ellen. It is an enormously popular cycling road, offering spectacular scenery and challenging ups and downs, just a few miles from Santa Rosa. Because Bennett Valley is not really a bike-friendly road, most riders approach Sonoma Mountain from Pressley Road, out of Cotati. That means the section of Sonoma Mountain Road that is of most interest to riders is the 5.4-mile stretch between Pressley and Warm Springs. As it happens, this is also the part of the road with the worst pavement.

Several years ago, a chunk of this hilly road slid down the hillside in a vast subsidence. It was closed for years until the county could put together a retaining wall…not an easy project. Once they had it all stabilized, they paved the damaged section to a very high standard. Now that new, smooth section stands in sharp contrast to all of the bad old road around it, and it only serves to remind us just how bad the bad parts are (compared to how good it could be).

Even more than Middle Two Rock and Spring Hill, this is a remote, backcountry byway. I make no claims about its value as a traffic collector or artery. It isn't one. But of all the remote, backcountry byways that have made this region so famous in the cycling world--the marquee attractions that pull in the visitors from far and wide--this is the road most accessible to Santa Rosa and to the popular tourist destinations along the Valley of the Moon. If the county were to pick one scenic back road for a smooth-as-silk makeover, this would be a good place to start.

10. Everything else

If Sonoma Mountain is more remote than Spring Hill, then these roads are even more…out there. I don't seriously expect the county to come up with the funds to do more than throw a shovel full of hot tar into the cracks and holes on these roads. I'm just listing them because they are the crown jewels of biking back roads in Sonoma County. Riders don't flock here and fill up hotels and restaurants to ride Willowside Road. Lynch Road, or Faught Road. They use those humble roads to get to these roads…the really epic miles out in the deep country.

So I can hardly hope to wish for better paving on these roads, but I just want to remind one and all that these are the true treasures of the local cycling world, and as such, they deserve to be cared for, at least a little. They are the geese that are laying the golden eggs for this county's cycle-tourism industry.

From Harrison Grade to Trinity Grade to Meyers Grade, from Hauser Bridge to Lambert Bridge, from Green Valley to Chileno Valley, from Coleman Valley to Franz Valley, from Vine Hill to Chalk Hill to Bay Hill, from Warm Springs to Hot Springs to Sweetwater Springs, from King Ridge to Cherry Ridge…on and on. It's an embarrassment of riches for cyclists, but, sadly, an embarrassment of poverty for the county road budget. Unless and until we change the way we pay for infrastructure in our modern world, we don't anticipate any significant improvements…just those remote roads in all their primitive, third world glory.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net



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