HUMBOLDT’S CRUMBLING ROAD SYSTEM; ‘Crisis Point’ Has Been Reached

The gap between the need for road upgrades and funding for them is steadily widening and the county’s director of public works has reported that it will cost almost $1 billion over the next 10 years to bring the county’s road system to good condition.

The increasingly daunting battle against road and road-related infrastructure deterioration was described at the April 16 Board of Supervisors meeting. Public Works Director Tom Mattson told supervisors about the findings of an updated 2008 study assessing statewide road conditions by the County Engineers Association of California, which he is president of.

A press release about the update declares that California’s roads and streets are at “a crisis point” and the costs of addressing it could double if funding shortfalls continue to delay upgrades.

The overall Pavement Condition Index (PCI) of roads in the state is 66, an “at risk” rating. Humboldt County’s overall PCI, with its cities included, is 64. The PCI for the unincorporated areas of the county is 58.

To illustrate what that means, Mattson showed a photo of a road whose condition is at the state’s overall PCI rating and explained its exponentially expensive future.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” he noted. But an “at risk” road is actually on the verge of needing an upgrade and the longer it’s put off, the worse and more expensive it becomes.

“If we don’t get to those kinds of roads in the very near future, the cost will start to double, triple, quadruple to repair and get that road back into good condition,” said Mattson.

In 2008, many counties in the state had good condition ratings but they’ve slipped into the “at risk” category. “We’ve managed to hold ouR own but I don’t foresee a really good future with the funding streams that are out there to maintain our roads right now,” Mattson told supervisors.

Eighty-seven percent of the state’s counties have fallen into the “at risk” and “poor” categories, he continued. Twenty-five to 40 percent of Humboldt County’s roads are in those categories, Mattson said.

Statewide, there’s $72 billion worth of pavement improvement needs for local roads and streets and only $13.3 billion of funding available. When bridges and road-related infrastructure are figured in, the state faces an $82 billion funding shortfall over the next 10 years and Mattson added that the sum doesn’t include projects that would increase traffic capacity.

Supervisor Estelle Fennell noted Humboldt’s road expenses over the next decade, which are estimated at $980 million. The unincorporated county portion of that would total “$50 to $60 million a year, easily,” Mattson said. His highest annual roads budget amount was $40 million, he continued, with $25 million of it for upgrade projects and the rest for maintenance.

Federal and state gas tax revenues haven’t kept up with inflation and as fuel usage declines due to increased efficiency, so does road funding. Additional funding options being considered by the state include vehicle license fee increases, setting a fee based on vehicle miles travelled and borrowing.

Mattson didn’t venture an opinion on any of the options but said they’ll get consideration because road investments are critical but not affordable at this point. “It’s extremely obvious that the way it’s funded right now is not working,” he continued.

He added that the tax option is even being extended to non-motorized users of the road system and taxes on jogging shoes and bicycles are being considered. So is the use cap and trade funds, as vehicles account for a majority of greenhouse gas emissions, said Mattson.

When the presentation ended, Supervisor Mark Lovelace asked, “This didn’t come with a budget request for all the money you need?” Mattson assured him that his department has submitted a supplemental budget request.