Supervisors seek funding source to improve roads

The members of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors agree that more funding is needed to improve the condition of county-maintained roads and have asked county staff to determine how to make that funding occur.

Supervisor Ron Roberts, whose Fourth District includes 0.32 miles of county-maintained road, was in Washington, DC, when the supervisors voted 4-0 Feb. 14 to receive a presentation from the county’s Department of Public Works on the county’s road maintenance program including its funding challenges and the impact on pavement conditions.

The supervisors also voted to direct the county’s chief administrative officer to return to the board with a funding plan within 90 days which will identify options to reach a pavement condition index of 70 within five years, to direct the chief administrative officer to draft a letter to be signed by Board of Supervisors chair Dianne Jacob urging Governor Brown and the state legislature to prioritize and approve a transportation funding solution which will address deteriorating road conditions throughout the state, and to work with the county’s Congressional delegation on possible federal funding.

“I’m glad we’re attacking it,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.

“It’s important to keep this public asset up to speed,” Jacob said. “Reliable roads are not only the lifeblood of our communities and economy, they are lifelines during a wildfire or other emergency.”

The county maintains 1,954 centerline miles and 3,981 lane miles of public road along with 200 bridges, 76 miles of guardrail, 18,460 culverts, 188 traffic signals, 6,651 street lights, and 37,292 traffic signs. “We’re not just about roads,” said DPW director Rich Crompton. “We don’t just maintain asphalt.”

That means that DPW must spend operations money on items other than road maintenance. “Where the snow was they had to clear the roads every day,” Horn said. “They’re spending 24/7 just clearing the roads.”

DPW’s total funding according to the county’s 2016-17 budget is $244.5 million which includes development planning, sidewalks and gutters, flood control, County Airports, recycling, and other functions.

The road fund amount of $92.4 million consists of $79.0 million for maintenance and operations and $13.4 million for capital projects.

Gas tax provides $51.0 million of the maintenance and operations amount. At one time gas tax was used for nearly all of the road fund budget, but a combination of more drivers creating additional wear on the roads, better fuel efficiency and increased mass transit use which have reduced the quantity of gas purchased and thus gas tax revenue, and decreased funding from the State of California has forced the county to utilize other sources.

The San Diego Gas & Electric franchise fee the utility pays for its use of public roadway provided $5 million for the road fund. The county is now using part of the half-cent TransNet sales tax for transportation to cover road maintenance; TransNet accounted for $2.0 million of the 2016-17 road fund revenue.

DPW is at risk of depleting its fund balance and used $14.5 million of previous-year balance for 2016-17 expenses. The 2016-17 budget also allocated $6.5 million of reserves for the road fund.

In addition to road surface treatments the maintenance and operations expenses include tree and brush trimming, striping, street sweeping, drainage, snow removal, emergency response, signals and signs, and customer requests.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a pavement condition index which utilizes a specialized vehicle with downward facing cameras to inspect roads and determine road condition.

An index of 71 to 100 is considered very good, an index of 51 to 70 is considered good, an index of 26 to 50 is considered poor, and an index of 0 to 25 is considered very poor.

The county’s pavement condition index was 71 in 2010, 67 in 2012, 64 in 2014, and 60 in 2016.

“Roads in the unincorporated area of the county are deteriorating,” Jacob said.  “We have a problem.  We need a solution.”

According to DPW, at the current level of funding the index would decrease to 45 by 2026. “Our road condition in the unincorporated area will continue to decline without adequate funding,” said Sarah Aghassi, the county’s deputy chief administrative officer for the Land Use and Environment Group which includes DPW.

“As soon as you start backslipping, it’s so challenging to catch back up,” said Supervisor Kristin Gaspar.

“I’m concerned about the condition of the roads,” Horn said.  “I would like to see it go back to 70.”

Roads in the very good category, which include 39 percent of the county’s roads, need only routine maintenance. Remediation for roads in the good category, which account for 29 percent of the county’s roads, is primarily sealing at a cost of $80,000 per lane mile.

An overlay costing approximately $180,000 per lane mile is needed to restore the 23 percent of the county’s roads which are in the poor category. Major rehabilitation including the removal of all asphalt and the subgrade base has an estimated cost of $310,000 per lane mile and is the needed treatment for the 9 percent of the county’s roads in the very poor category.

Gas tax revenue has declined from $70 million in 2013-14. Not only is the current $51.0 million less than what the county received in 2000-01, but when that 2000-01 amount is adjusted for inflation the 2016-17 figure would be $88 million.

“We cannot continue to count on the state,” Jacob said.

The losses also include shifts of revenue from the county to the state. “If the state legislature hadn’t been stealing our money all these years we’d have more money to fix our roads,” Horn said.

Horn noted that county snow removal activity sometimes occurs on state highways. “I don’t think the state is giving us enough to repair the roads they’re responsible for,” he said.

“All of our citizens have the expectation that these core priorities are funded first,” Gaspar said.

Maintaining a pavement condition index of 60 would require $30 million of annual expenditures. Improving the index to 65 would require $40 million annually to reach that number in 10 years and $45 million annually to achieve that standard in five years while $31.5 million of annual ongoing costs would be required.

The cost to improve the index to 70 would be $50 million annually for a 10-year period and $56 million annually for a five-year program with annual ongoing costs of $33 million. The estimated shortfall to bring the index to 70 would be $40.1 million for fiscal year 2017-18, $45.3 million for 2018-19, and $50.3 million for 2019-20.

Current proposals in the state legislature include increasing the gas tax and increasing vehicle registration and license fees, including increased fees for electric vehicles which create the same amount of wear on roads as cars which use gas.

A pilot program of a road usage charge has been implemented, although the report on the pilot program will not be provided until 2018 and a statewide per-mile charge might lack the necessary nexus for a user fee if miles on private roads or out-of-state roads are counted.

Jacob noted that a county road restoration program would create “shovel-ready” projects in the event federal funding becomes available. “Perhaps that will put us ahead of the game,” she said.

Cox opined that in some specific cases an index below 70 may be acceptable. “There are some roads that probably get very little usage,” he said.

In recent years, the county has used rubberized asphalt concrete, which costs approximately 10 percent more than ordinary asphaltic concrete but is more durable than normal asphalt concrete, on high-volume roads.

Gaspar noted that other alternative materials might reduce the cost. “It’s not the perfect solution, but it can really hold us over,” she said. “It may not be the ultimate fix, but it may help us.”

Jacob is willing to consider alternate surfacing.  “Hopefully that’s something staff will be exploring as they look at options,” she said.

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