Roadway Repairs Proving Costly in Wake of Record Winter Rain

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This winter in Marin County, a stretch of State Route 37 between U.S. Highway 101 and Atherton Avenue was shut down due to flooding. Photo courtesy of Caltrans.

Record-setting winter rain impaired Bay Area roads and highways by causing flooding, potholes, and closures. Although the stormy season is now over, counties are still reckoning with damage that will cost millions to repair. While some of those expenditures may be eligible for state and federal reimbursement, procuring that funding could take several years.

At $375.6 million, Bay Area highway repair costs — both “emergency opening” and “permanent restoration” — represent 38 percent of the statewide $968 million damage bill, according to Caltrans estimates dated May 8. Marin and Santa Clara counties racked up the biggest highway repair bills in the nine-county region at $104 million and $79.1 million, respectively.

As for local roads, tallies from several county agencies show further damage. To fix unincorporated roads in San Mateo and Sonoma counties, for example, it will cost approximately $19 million and $17 million, respectively, according to officials interviewed for this story. Contra Costa County is facing a $16 million tab, while repairs to 10 projects on Marin County roads will run $4.4 million.

In addition to potholes, common issues included debris removal, especially fallen trees and branches, and slip-outs where the base of the road falls out from underneath. Creek overflows, crumbling road edges, and mudslides also wreaked havoc.

The process of putting local roads and highways back together varies by site and circumstance. For example, part of Highway 1 between Muir Beach and Green Gulch in Marin County re-opened in May after heavy January damage due to washouts. But other sections on the popular route remain shuttered, according to Caltrans.

In nearby Sonoma County, a section of Old Monte Rio Road has been closed since February after the hillside slipped out underneath, preventing residents of four nearby properties from entering their homes via driveway, said Jennifer Larocque, a spokesperson for the Sonoma County Department of Transportation and Public Works.

“That’s a repair we’ll look at completing in-house this summer as soon as possible,” Larocque said. “We’re waiting for the soil to dry out.”

In the South Bay, San Mateo crews are beginning some repair work, starting on Gazos Creek Road after a streambank slid into the pavement, said Joe LoCoco, deputy director of roads for San Mateo County.

But permanent fixes to other local roads in San Mateo County, as well as Sonoma, will require the help of geotechnical team assessments to meet design requirements.

“Until we do geotechnical investigations, we won’t know the extent of the problems,” LoCoco said.

In the meantime, officials are seeking financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) is also a source of relief.

A large portion of State Route 35 near Castle Rock State Park in Santa Clara County collapsed due to a major washout on February 10. Photo courtesy of Caltrans.

Emergency funding is separate from what’s expected to be generated via Senate Bill 1 (Beall), the Road Repair & Accountability Act of 2017. Signed by Governor Jerry Brown in April, SB 1 will raise funds via gas taxes and vehicle fees to address billions in deferred highway and local road maintenance. SB 1 planning was underway before heavy rains aggravated transportation infrastructure weaknesses.

“Even before the recent winter rains, more than two-thirds of roads in California were in poor or mediocre shape,” said Adam Fowler, manager of public policy research at Beacon Economics, a research and consulting firm. As he pointed out, “The national average [shows] a quarter of roads as poor or mediocre. We stand out above the national average.”

In the Beacon Economics report Beyond the Gas Tax: Funding California Transportation in the 21st Century, Fowler questioned the long-term funding viability of SB 1. Commissioned by the bipartisan group Next 10, the report argued that alternatives must be developed to meet the state’s needs.

“Unaddressed maintenance doesn’t get any cheaper,” Fowler said.

Caltrans approved $522 million in “Director’s Orders” for emergency openings and repairs, said the agency’s Mark Dinger. That money is essentially an advance out of the State Highway Account before eligible reimbursements are provided.

“There’s about a 50 percent chance that each project will get approved, and if they are, the county hopes to be reimbursed up to about 90 percent,” added Julian Kaelon, spokesperson for the public works department in Marin County, where projects are under review with FEMA and FHWA. “As for timing, the reimbursement process is expected to take about two years.”

Contra Costa and Sonoma counties are among public agencies — transportation and others — working with Cal OES, which is experiencing active demand for damage assistance.

“We have 1,100-plus assistance applicants and have met with 10 percent so far,” said Shawn Boyd, Cal OES public information officer, in an e-mail dated May 3. “We should have a better idea of total costs by late July or August.”

As warm temperatures offer a chance to dry out, officials are reflecting on the winter season and how it compares with previous El Niño years that pummeled the region.

“We, generally speaking, have fared well,” added Brian Balbas, chief deputy director at Contra Costa County Public Works. “We did a fairly good job preparing for the winter, cleaning up softer shoulders, cleaning out inlets, and dealing with areas that are potential flooding problems.”

Flooding was among several major concerns highlighted in a 2015 Bay Area Council report, Surviving the Storm. It estimated the economic costs of a “mega storm,” including damage to structures and building contents, electricity service losses, air transportation delays, and road closures.

The report set the stage for eventual passage of 2016’s Measure AA, a parcel tax that will fund marsh restoration and subsequent flood protection during major storms, said Adrian Covert, report author and public policy director at the council.

Covert said he considers 2017 to be more of a “mega winter” than a mega storm and feels “sadly vindicated” now that recent rains revealed some vulnerabilities highlighted in the report.

“We did the study because California has a volatile climate, and the pendulum swings from drought to deluge,” he said.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.