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County looks for ways to generate revenue for road improvements

New Idria Road was completely washed out and remains impassable after the late January storms.

When parts of south San Benito County received six inches of precipitation over a three-day period in late January, Kim and Sam Lippert knew some motorists would be in trouble. Sure enough, on Jan. 27—the beginning onslaught of three days of heavy rain—Sam used his truck to pull cars out of the mud. 

“Storms haven’t been that bad here for quite a while, probably since 1997 and ’98,” said Kim, who owns the Panoche Inn along with her husband Sam. “That Wednesday (the 27th), parts of roads were flooded, you had rock slides, mudslides and total washouts.”

Around Paicines, Lippert said things actually would’ve been worse had conditions not been bone dry prior to the storms. Having lived in the southern end of the county for 26 years, Kim knows the poor conditions of the roads pose a danger when the area gets blanketed with a sustained period of inclement weather. 

“There are so many (gigantic) potholes, and the roads have always been crappy out here,” she said.

The numbers back up Kim’s statement. San Benito County has a Pavement Condition Index (PCI)—which is used to determine the condition of roads—of 37, the worst in the state according to the latest figures from the California Statewide Local Streets and Roads Needs Assessment in 2018. The average PCI statewide is 65, which is considered to be in the “at risk” category. 

Given the already dilapidated condition of some county roads, perhaps it was no surprise that the county sustained approximately $25 million in road damages from the Jan. 27-29 storms. After a preliminary assessment, the county filed paperwork for a local emergency to the state on Feb. 4 which the Board of Supervisors ratified on Feb. 9. Cienega Road, Coalinga Road, King City Road, New Idria Road, Panoche Road, Salinas Grade and Southside Road sustained the most damage, with Fairview and Union Road incurring damages estimated at $250,000 each. 

With the exception of New Idria Road—which was completely washed out—all of the aforementioned roads are back open. 

“Our county crews did a terrific job mobilizing during the event and afterward getting roads back open as quickly as possible, and I couldn’t be more pleased with them,” County Resource Agency Management Director Benny Young said. “We were already dealing with compromised pavement conditions and a roadway system that was already stressed before the storms came.”

Young said even though the majority of the damage was done on lightly-traveled country roads, it is paramount to improve conditions going forward. 

“It’s a source of great concern because of the mobility and access to county assets like Pinnacles National Park,” he said. “Some of these roads are also emergency evacuation routes, which makes it critical for them to be in good standing.”

According to Young, there is a total of 451 miles of roads in the county, which touches the Monterey and Fresno County lines. The state of California has done a damage assessment of what San Benito County incurred on its roads and are in the process of evaluating which of the 12 counties in the state that applied will receive reimbursements for repair work related to the storm-damaged roads. As of March 11, the county had not heard back from the state on this matter. 

“It’s unlikely they will completely deny our claim,” County Office of Emergency Services Director Kris Mangano said. “It’s more likely they would partially subsidize or offer assistance.”

Young said instead of waiting to hear back from the state, the board of supervisors passed a resolution on March 9 authorizing Young to proceed with some immediate work repair “in hopes those repairs will (retroactively) be eligible for reimbursement from the state.”

The road damage incurred from the storms was just another hit on the county’s uphill task to maintain—let alone fix—its roads. Last month, Young told the board it would cost an additional $12.2 million per year—or double the current budgeted number—for the next 10 years just to keep up with the current road maintenance. 

“If we want to improve our system rating to good, we would need a little over $300 million over 10 years to get it done,” he said. 

District 2 Supervisor Kollin Kosmicki acknowledges the county faces an uphill task to fix what he calls an institutional problem. In the short term, at least, Kosmicki would like to spend down the county’s “robust” general reserve fund to address immediate road needs.
“We all know the roads are in terrible shape due to decades of lack of upkeep,” he said. “The roads have fallen so behind that we’ve created sort of a monster here … San Benito County is inherently short-changed on revenue because it gets 11 cents on the dollar on property taxes, with the vast majority of those dollars going to schools. That is great, but that also leaves entities like us in a bind. And since we don’t have a strong base of commercial retail here, it leaves us from year to year in a very precarious position.”

It’s widely agreed that the county must find additional ways to generate revenue for road and maintenance. That can be through things like introducing an effective marketing promotional campaign featuring tourism of Pinnacles, San Juan Bautista and the wineries—all of which Kosmicki is particularly keen on—and applying for federal grants to boost the county’s tourism profile. Young feels confident the county will be recipients of federal grants.

“In our application, we’re going to emphasize the need to maintain access to our national park and federal land and how that can strengthen our economic base here from a tourism perspective,” Young said.