A road is closed after damage during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020. (Cal Fire)

Swanton Road at Mill Creek on the North Coast was damaged during the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in 2020. (Cal Fire)

Key takeaways

  • Decades of inadequate maintenance have left many county roads in “deplorable shape,” according to a civil grand jury report. 
  • Much of the money for regular road repair and maintenance has instead gone to fix damage from storms, floods, fires and other disasters in the past four years.
  • The worst county roads are the most expensive to fix and are deprioritized for repairs. Without more money, county staff said they might never be fixed.
  • County leaders may ask voters to hike an annual property assessment to fund more repairs.

SANTA CRUZ >> Don Ferris is a frequent hiker these days, but not by choice. On Feb. 28, a landslide spilled across Mountain Charlie Road and cut off road access to Ferris’ and five other families’ homes. 

Now he and his neighbors near the Summit, including an 85-year-old woman, navigate broken roads and dirt paths to haul trash out and bring groceries to their homes.

“What we’re really anxious about right now is, we’ve got not only fire season, but we’ve got the winters coming up,” Ferris said. The road likely won’t be fixed for years, county staff have said.

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Even before the landslide, Mountain Charlie Road was in extremely poor condition, with multiple rusted-out culverts, Ferris said. “It’s horrible,” he said. “Obviously it has not been maintained for years.” 

Residents across San Lorenzo Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains often contend with substandard roads, many with large potholes and cracks. For many rural Santa Cruz County residents, including attendees at a Santa Cruz Local listening session in Boulder Creek in June, road conditions are one of the most pressing local issues.

Foul roads are decades in the making, according to Santa Cruz County staff and a recent Santa Cruz County Grand Jury report.

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Why are Santa Cruz County roads so bad?

When county roads were last surveyed in 2018, they scored an average 48 out of 100 on the Pavement Condition Index— about 17 points lower than the state average. 

In the past six years, the county’s average has probably slipped a few more points, said Matt Machado, Santa Cruz County’s community and development director. 

Santa Cruz County roads scored slightly higher than Monterey County, but significantly lower than San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, according to a 2019 report.

Many of Santa Cruz County’s rural roads scored below 25, and are considered “failed.” One section of Mountain Charlie Road had a score of 6.

Santa Cruz County leaders have cited frequent natural disasters as a key driver of road decline. But a much bigger problem is that roads haven’t been adequately maintained for decades, according to a Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury report in June.

Machado, in charge of county roads and public works since 2018, agreed. The county’s roads, culverts and drainage systems would need $1 billion to be in good condition, he said. Some county supervisors last year estimated that county roads and facilities needed about $342 million in repairs, but that figure didn’t include drainage and other projects.

Many county roads were originally paved in the 1950s and ’60s. Ideally, those roads should have been maintained every 7 to 10 years. For the most part, that hasn’t happened. 

“As we got into the ’90s, and we started seeing the consequences of not much maintenance, some counties responded and said, ‘Well, we’re going to start investing and prioritizing,’ and some counties did not,” Machado said. “Our county was one of those that did not invest in their roads.”

Sui Tan, a project manager for the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, said transportation dollars often go to new projects rather than existing ones. “The road maintenance doesn’t always get that ribbon-cutting kind of attention,” Tan said. “A lot of times, when local agencies are tight with the budget, the road [maintenance] is always the one that gets deferred.”

Santa Cruz County, like many other California counties, is not working through its backlog of maintenance — instead it struggles just to prevent further decline.

County leaders said there’s simply not enough money. A countywide sales tax to fund transportation is split between public transit, rail-trail efforts, highway projects and pedestrian and cyclist paths. 

“I’m very disheartened by the county’s response of saying, well, we don’t have any money,” said Ferris, the Mountain Charlie Road resident. “Where are the property taxes going?”

Some county staff and supervisors have said Santa Cruz County’s share of property taxes is too low to adequately fund roads and other county needs.

In recent years, money has been diverted to natural disaster repairs rather than general road maintenance. “Since 2017, we have spent $349 million on roads,” said County Administrative Officer Carlos Palacios during a June 4 county budget hearing. “But almost half of it was spent on disaster response.”

How are roads prioritized for repairs?

Natural disaster repairs and regular road maintenance have methods of prioritization, Machado said.

Disaster repairs are funded mainly with money from California Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with some local money. Those repairs are prioritized with a point system that gives more urgency to:

  • More central roads, like long arterials.
  • More severely damaged roads. 
  • Roads with one way in or out.
  • Roads with damaged culverts or utility lines.
  • Repairs ready for construction.

In September, county public works staff plan to ask the county board of supervisors to also prioritize roads that: 

  • Are part of an evacuation route.
  • Have outside state or federal funding.
  • Advance equity. Staff have not decided how to assess repairs for equity, Machado said.

Roads not damaged by natural disasters are prioritized for repair largely based on the number of cars that drive on them. County staff also consider input from residents and supervisors and try to distribute repairs equally across the county. 

Separate from county public works, the Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission has asked residents to help prioritize roads for repair in a survey due Aug. 2. The commission helps secure grant money and execute projects, and the survey is part of a regional transportation plan for 2050.

A survey due Aug. 2 asks residents for input on an interactive map of roads prioritized for repair. Areas in red and orange are now prioritized over areas in shades of blue. (Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission)

Why is more money spent on aging roads than failed roads?

It is eight times more expensive to repair a road in poor condition than a road in fair condition, Machado said. Without maintenance, that “fair” road could become “poor” within years.

“It doesn’t serve the community if you put all your money on one road, versus going and fixing eight roads,” he said.

Most counties use the same strategy, Tan said. “It’s just not cost effective to maintain roads, especially rural ones where it’s only serving a very small population, versus heavier traffic roads,” he said. On failed roads, “the most they do is basically fill the potholes, or some Band-Aid type of work on it, so that they can buy three more years.”

The civil grand jury requested that the policy be formally documented and disseminated to county residents.

For Ferris of Mountain Charlie Road, the strategy is difficult to accept. “I’m really, really frustrated with the response of the county and the supervisors in terms of kind of putting this off,” he said. “The longer it’s put off, the worse it’s going to get.”

When will my extremely degraded road be fixed?

“If there’s no change to our revenue, then I would say that that road may never be resurfaced,” Machado said. “Our management practice is to, you know, keep up with potholes, keep the drainage systems working. But because of lack of resources, that’s about it.”

With more money, the county would be able to fully reconstruct more failed roads, he said.

Other counties have also all but abandoned failed roads, Tan said. In some places, including Sonoma County, counties “are even letting this kind of very rural road [turn] into gravel roads,” he said.

Santa Cruz County’s mountain roads are too steep and curved for gravel, Machado said.

The civil grand jury report suggested that county supervisors fund the repair of at least one poor-quality road with a Pavement Condition Index under 40. Machado said he disagreed with the idea.

While he would appreciate more money for roads, “I think having a grand jury try to define a best management practice — that’s not the best use of money,” Machado said. “I don’t think they’re experts in it,” he said. “I think we should invest in our pavement management system that’s been thought out by experts, developed over time, used by nearly every county in this nation.”

Where does the money come from for road repair?

Most of the money for county roads comes from:

  • The county’s General Fund, which can be spent for any county purpose. The budget for the fiscal year that started July 11 allocates $11 million of the $779 million General Fund for roads.
  • Measure D, a sales tax approved by Santa Cruz County voters in 2016. The sales tax also funds public transit, coastal rail trail development and freeway improvements. The Santa Cruz County Regional Transportation Commission is responsible for distributing the money to different areas and projects throughout the county. 
  • SB 1, a gasoline tax approved by California voters in 2017. Funding is expected to decline as more people drive electric vehicles. Over the next year, the tax is projected to raise about $6.7 million for Santa Cruz County.
  • Measure K, a sales tax approved by county voters in March, is expected to bring in $10 million annually for many purposes including road repair. The money is on hold as the tax faces a lawsuit from a Boulder Creek resident who contends that all county voters should not have weighed in on a tax that only applies to unincorporated areas.
  • County Service Area taxes. Residents in CSAs pay an increased tax to receive more services, like trash collection or repair of specific roads. CSA 9D includes the entire unincorporated county and raises about $2.7 million annually for countywide road repair. 

Virginia Wright is part of a CSA in Felton Grove, a mountain neighborhood on a bank of the San Lorenzo River. In 2021, she and her neighbors voted to repair Circle Drive, a severely damaged road near her house. Repairs were delayed by winter floods and the county bureaucracy, but were completed in late 2023. 

Many of Wright’s neighbors in other parts of the San Lorenzo Valley have asked her if they should consider forming a CSA. She said she has mixed advice. “It depends on whether the group wants to deal with neighbors or deal with the county,” she said. While CSAs ensure that all neighbors pay into repairs, some neighborhoods may prefer to voluntarily pool money themselves, she said.

Most of the money for disaster repairs comes from the state and FEMA. But the county has also had to use SB 1 and county General Fund money. And it’s paying for many disaster repairs from its own coffers as it awaits $125 million in FEMA payments. In June, supervisors approved $105 million in debt to backfill missing reimbursements.

A bright orange sign for Highway 9 detour north towards Felton on Graham Hill Road.

Graham Hill Road was a detour for Highway 9 in February. (Nik Altenberg — Santa Cruz Local file)

How can the county get more money for road repair? 

In June budget hearings, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Manu Koenig said the county should cut money for county efforts to fund road repair. Machado said he wants to focus on growing the pie, rather than taking a larger slice.

“I think [roads] ought to be one of our highest priorities— I mean, maybe the highest priority of the county,” Machado said. But that shouldn’t mean taking money from other departments, he said. “I think that’s a nonstarter in county government.”

One possible source of local money is Measure K, a sales tax approved by county voters in March that is expected to bring in $10 million annually. The money is on hold as the tax faces a legal challenge from one Boulder Creek resident.

Campaign materials for the measure promised that roads, housing, climate adaptation and homelessness services would each receive at least $1 million annually. The board of supervisors could dedicate the remaining $6 million to roads, Machado said.

A flier for Measure K in March 2024 promises road repairs and many other fixes from a sales tax hike. Voters approved it with more than 54% of the vote, but no money has come from it because of a lawsuit from a Boulder Creek resident. (Citizens for a Safe and Strong Santa Cruz County)

 

Supervisors could also call for an election to raise the CSA 9D service assessment in the unincorporated county, which has been dedicated to road repair for decades. The tax is $56.40 for land with buildings and $28.20 for vacant land. It hasn’t been raised since 1988. 

Raising the assessment would require a mail-in vote in the unincorporated county.

“We hope in early next year that we can do some polling of the community and see if there’s general support,” Machado said. Polling would help decide the size of the increase, he said. If there is public support for a higher assessment, supervisors could approve a ballot measure in early 2025, he said.

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Reporter / California Local News Fellow

Jesse Kathan is a staff reporter for Santa Cruz Local through the California Local News Fellowship. They hold a master's degree in science communications from UC Santa Cruz.