Earth Day: Does saving the world by driving less mean the demise of well-maintained roads?

Earth Day is the kind of holiday that makes you think about the things you can do to save the world. Among them, may be to cut down on your fuel consumption, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and slows down global warming, as well as makes the air cleaner to breathe. But your thoughtfulness toward Mother Earth may mean less money for local governments to maintain and repair the roads your carpool, bus, bicycle or fuel efficient vehicle rides on. In a recent Street Smarts issue, the county reported that it is having difficulty maintaining all it’s roadways because of flat funding resources, namely a reduction in gas tax monies due to the fact that people are driving less. While it focuses its resources on keeping main roads like Soquel Drive drivable, the county also is helping neighborhoods establish special funding districts into which residents would pay a sum to maintain their local roads. So, how do the county’s two largest city’s compare? Are they seeing gas tax funding drop, too, making it more difficult for them to maintain local roads? If so, what are they doing to make sure their roads remain passable? Street Smarts quizzed officials from the public works departments in the cities of Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Below are their answers, uncut. How much money does your city get from the gas tax and how does that compare with previous years? Chris Schneiter, Santa Cruz: “We get about $1 million per year in gas tax, which has not changed for as long as I can remember. The money is primarily used to maintain traffic signals and street lights, and pay for the energy usage. There is a little bit left over each year which is spent on street maintenance and transportation related projects.” Maria Rodriguez, Watsonville: “Watsonville typically receives about $800,000 annually in gas tax. This fiscal year, we’ve only received about $300,000.” How much money does your city need to repair its worst roads? Schneiter: “We estimate that we need an additional $3 million per year beyond gas tax, Measure H and grants to adequately maintain the street pavement.” Rodriguez: “Watsonville was able to do a lot of road repair last year with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (or ARRA federal economic stimulus) funds. We received $1.2 million and were able to resurface over 11 miles of city streets. This is what we would have typically used gas tax monies on. (With the ARRA funds,) we were only able to address streets on the federal aid route system, which are our arterials and collector streets. There are about 88 miles of streets in Watsonville. “We are also out to bid on another ARRA funded project – Green Valley Road Rehab Phase II. We have $2.2 million in ARRA funding for this project. It will reconstruct from Main Street to just past Home Depot. “By receiving this ARRA funding, we are able to use our gas tax on other road maintenance projects that would not be able to use the ARRA money.” What "outside-the-box" ideas do you have that would help you get the money you need to maintain local roads?: Schneiter: “The citizens of Santa Cruz approved Measure H prior to the meltdown, which provided about $1.7 million per year towards street maintenance. This is a sales tax measure, which has suffered since the economic downturn. We spent about 10 years worth of Measure H money in two years, with the intention of issuing bonds. We had promised the voters we would spend 20 years worth in four years. The Measure H paving is temporarily on hold; however, we have received about $2.5 million in ARRA stimulus funds, some other federal grant funds and $1.8 million in state Prop 1B funds in the last three years that were dedicated to paving streets. Since Measure H was implemented we took care of a lot of very bad streets. Not sure what’s the worst at this time. “We have talked about a citywide lighting and landscaping district which would require the citizens to tax themselves to pay for the maintenance of street lights, traffic signals and landscaped medians. This would allow the gas tax funds to go to street maintenance. A lot of communities do this; however, it is not currently on our table for discussion. The medians would look a lot better also, which is currently a general fund expense and done by the few remaining parks workers. “Another idea that has been used in California is a vehicle impact fee -- a fee on heavy vehicles. A loaded refuse truck can equal the street damage of 10,000 passenger vehicles. This hasn’t gotten any traction in a long time. “Then there is the age old idea about raising the gas tax per gallon. A very politically impossible tax it seems, though one with many benefits to generate money for street maintenance, reducing single vehicle auto use, etc.” Rodriguez: “We continue to look for federal, state and local funding to help us with our road repairs and/or reconstructions.” Any other thoughts about our attempts to save the environment hurting your ability to do your job, which in turn, may be hurting the environment via reduced fuel efficiency because motorists have to slow down for potholes or take an alternate route to avoid rough roads? Schneiter: “Paving streets is not impeded by environmental review to any great extent as it’s a maintenance function. There are some new initiatives in the production and application of asphalt products that are improving the environment and I see as a good thing for the environment and health of those around hot asphalt. I’m not sure yet how that translates to additional cost. I know using crumb rubber from tires to create rubberized asphalt can be 30-percent more expensive, though riding characteristics and longevity can be improved and traffic noise reduced. It’s very dependent on temperature conditions, which vary a lot in Santa Cruz.” Rodriguez: “Motorists slowing down wouldn’t be such a bad thing, in general.”
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