Road repair is on the right track in SLO County

A car drives past a large pothole on Newport Avenue in Grover Beach.
A car drives past a large pothole on Newport Avenue in Grover Beach. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County is in economic recovery mode — the recent passage of a budget that adds 83 full-time-equivalent positions is proof of that — but here’s a reality check: The county still has a lot of catching up to do.

Roads are a prime example.

The county budget for 2015-16 allocates a record $11.2 million to pavement management, which includes sealing roads to extend their life and repaving roads too far gone for seal treatment.

More than half of that $11.2 million is one-time money: $3 million from the county’s general fund and $3.5 million in road reserves. Even that infusion won’t be enough; it will still require massive annual expenditures to get the county’s 1,330 miles of roads in satisfactory shape.

The overall condition of county roads is rated at 61 on a 0-to-100 scale that grades roads based on the percentage of cracks. (A rating of 61 means that 39 percent of the surfaces are cracked.)

The county’s goal is 65; to meet that, the county will have to invest $10.8 million per year for the next 10 years.

If the county opts to put no additional funds toward the pavement management program — maintaining the usual level of support — county roads would deteriorate to a rating of 59 within five years, according to county staff.

Would that be so bad?

County officials say it would be. “Mid-50s we would have potholes,” said David Flynn, deputy public works director.

And at that point, it would be far more costly to get the roads back in shape.

One example: In 2013, streets in the city of Grover Beach rated 53 — the worst in the county. To raise money for necessary repairs, the city decided to ask city voters to approve a $48 million bond measure, which was approved last year.

Many cities and counties across California are in the same predicament. So is the state government, which has an estimated backlog of $59 billion in repairs to state highways.

That’s partly due to the Great Recession, but blame also has been placed on dwindling gas tax revenues, which are down on account of the proliferation of more fuel-efficient vehicles and electric cars.

There’s been talk of switching to a system that would charge motorists for every mile traveled, rather than for every gallon of fuel purchased. Advocates say it would be more equitable because all drivers would contribute to the upkeep of roads, but that’s likely years away for California.

In the meantime, legislation has been proposed (SB 16) that would generate more funding for road maintenance by reallocating $1 billion a year in truck weight fees from the general fund to roads; increase the state gas tax by 10 cents per gallon; increase vehicle registration fees by $35 per year; and charge owners of zero-emission vehicles an annual $100 fee.

Some components of the bill make sense, but we would hate to see California’s gas tax and registration fees climb any higher. And we would want assurances that cities and counties would receive their fair share of revenue before endorsing the legislation.

Yet there’s no denying that something has to be done, whether it’s raising gas taxes or relying on local sales tax increases or bond measures, like the one passed in Grover Beach.

For now, at least, San Luis Obispo County has taken the responsible step by allocating extra money for pavement maintenance. But this problem isn’t going to be solved in a year or two. We urge the county to develop a long-term plan to fund pavement maintenance at an adequate level and share that plan with taxpayers who, one way or another, will be footing the bill.