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 by: Bill Oetinger  1/1/2017

Bright spots in dark times

Here we are, arrived at the new year of 2017. This is the point where we wish one another Happy New Year. I do indeed wish you all of that: a new year that will be filled with happiness and all the good things that contribute to happiness: health, family, perhaps a modest prosperity…maybe even a few bike rides along lovely country lanes, weather permitting of course.

But the new year of 2017 feels a little different, at least to a few of us: we look out from our cozy blue sancturary of California at a world that seems to have gone a little bit nuts. The ship of state has been highjacked by a plutocratic pirate and his merry band of corporate bucaneers, and we peer into future with some combination of outrage and dismay. But let me add: I do not automatically assume you agree with me on this topic. If there is one thing we have learned—and learned the hard way—over the past few months, it’s that there are no longer any safe assumptions. So, out of respect for alternate points of view, I am not going to continue to roll around on the floor, pitching a tantrum about this state of affairs…at least not in this space.

Anyway, my natural inclination is to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. So instead of weeping and wailing and gnashing my teeth, I am going to use this first column of the new year to mention something positive. Instead of agonizing over all the bad news out there, I’m going to shine a little light on some good news. It even has something to do with government, and it certainly concerns the well-being and happiness of cyclists.

What’s this good news? In a word, paving.

Most of the time, my bike rides center around Sonoma County, on the north fringe of the North Bay. For many years, this county has had a well-deserved reputation for terrible paving on its county-maintained roads…the ones where cyclists do their thing. I’ve added more than my two cents’ worth to the never-ending discussion of what’s wrong with our roads and what can be done to make things better. This will be at least the fifth time in the last few years I’ve looked at the matter. I’m not going to provide links to all those past essays. They’re in the archive here and can be tracked down if you’re interested enough. But I will say they follow a trajectory—in their points of view—that I find surprising. That is, I would have been surprised, when I wrote the first one, that I would end up where I find myself now.

The first one was a bitter critique of everything that was wrong with the way we deal with our roads. I called it the Cheap-Seal Blues, in honor of that sorry-assed paving option, chip-seal, one our county lays down all too often. I really tore a strip off our county government, from the elected high hats right down to the guys driving the trucks on the public works crews. However, in each of my subsequent revisitings of the topic, I have been moving, in small, sometimes grudging steps, toward a more encouraging assessment of our roads and of those whose task it is to pave and maintain them.

Quite simply, they are doing a better job than they used to do. It is still true that we have hundreds of miles of the most remote back roads—and some not all that remote—with deplorable pavement. The same overarching challenges that have always existed are still in place: too many little roads and not enough money to maintain them. The policies and formulas that determine how much money each county receives for its roads are badly skewed against this county, and we still get hind teat compared to the more populous counties to the south. (One of my past columns was about the iniquity of the existing system.)

But all the bad publicity that our bad roads has brought the county has in some ways finally had a positive result. Residents along rural roads—drivers and cyclists alike—have pissed and groused and lobbied and generally made such a stink for so long that the folks in charge are finally getting the message and doing something about it. While the funding pipeline remains pinched in ways that seem unfair and inconvenient—to put it mildly—the County Supervisors are no longer using that as an excuse to simply throw their hands up in the air and say, in effect: “There’s nothing we can do!” In addition to whatever moneys are already earmarked for roads, they are drawing on general funds to help out. It remains a zero-sum game, robbing Peter to pay Paul: if you take money from something else and put it into roads, that “something else” now gets short shrift. There are no easy, painless solutions. That said, they are making our roads a higher priority than they had done in our past Dark Ages.

The notion of getting onto the paving hobby horse one more time came to me last week when I rode along Faught Road and discovered it had just been repaved, and to a very high standard. My last column on the topic was a wish list of bad roads for the county to work on. Faught Road, in combination with its neighbor Chalk Hill Road, was number 2 on my list. (Chalk Hill was repaved a few months ago. It wasn’t paved to the same high standard as Faught, but is still a big improvement over what had been there.) Much of Faught’s old paving was just plain awful. I noted in that other column that it serves as a crucial gateway road between the Santa Rosa-Windsor population centers and the wine country of Alexander Valley. For cyclists, almost any larger loop up into Sonoma County’s wine regions will use these two roads, either heading north out of town or south on the return portion of the loop. Faught comes up at about mile 96 in our popular Wine Country Century. Whether you’re a tired rider just trying to plug away to the finish or a frisky hammer trying to lay down a PR over the course, those last lumpy miles along this road were a fatiguing, bone-jarring purgatory.

Finding that awful old pavement gone, replaced by black satin, was too wonderful to pass up without a tip of the columnist’s hat to the county. Thank you! Hallelujah! But wait: there’s more. I trumpeted the happy news on our club’s chat list and that jump-started a thread of responses from other cyclists, all listing other good biking roads that have recently gotten their black-tar face lifts: Warm Springs, Vine Hill, Irwin, Frei, Bloomfield, Lynch…and more I can’t recall off the top of my head. Add to these latest makeovers the ones they’ve done in the previous couple of years: Eastside, Westside, West Dry Creek, Graton, Bennett Valley, Petaluma-Valley Ford, parts of Chileno Valley, Lytton Station, parts of River, etc, etc, ad glorium.

We’re not quite ready to declare the county’s roads perfect. Not even close. But the powers that be have things headed in the right direction. They’re finding the funding, then doing good things with whatever money they have. The results are superb…so far…and more is on the way. Here is a link to the county’s proposed repaving projects for 2017. The number of little red lines on the map—the roads slated for work—doesn’t look all that impressive, scattered thinly all around the sprawling county. But if we could overlay that map with another showing all the other great roads that have been repaved in, say, the past five years, then it really would start to look substantial.

How exactly they arrived at this 2017 to-do list is something I don’t know. I have talked with some insiders about it and have part of the story, but not enough exact info to go to print. If I were a real investigative journalist, I’d chase around and get the scoop. But I’m not a real journalist and so I’m leaving this in the speculative, head-scratcher category. Some of the roads on the list are great news. Getting them fixed up will be dandy. Others are a bit inexplicable: out of the way dead ends that hardly anyone ever uses. How’d they make the list ahead of a road like Willowside? In my wish list of highest priority paving projects—where Faught-Chalk Hill was #2—my #1 wish was for the combined Willowside and Hall Roads. Hall was repaved this past year, not all that well, but at least improved. But Willowside, in even worse condition, remains its ugly old self, and it’s not on this 2017 list either. That I find highly frustrating. It seems like such a simple, relatively inexpensive road to redo.

Perhaps after the holidays I’ll mount a little crusade to see if we can’t get Willowside moved up to nearer the front of the list. But for now, that little frustration notwithstanding, I am rejoicing in all the progress we have seen. I had always thought it would be my lot in life forever—as a Sonoma County cyclist—to jounce and judder along from potholes to patches, dodging cracks and crazing…one eye always dedicated to scoping out the minefield ahead. Now, without really working too hard at it, I can throw together routes that spend more time on top-quality pavement than they do on that old, lumpy-bumpy crap. I quite literally never thought I’d live to see the day. Amazing.

As we look ahead to this new year with some very justified misgivings and worries—at the national and global level—on the local front, we can look ahead to at least one good thing: more miles of smooth cruising on silky new paving. Let those dreamy miles serve as therapy for your stressed out soul when the rest of the world seems to be ganging up on you.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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