Would Gov. Brown’s gas tax allow county roads to be recycled?

In May 2011, 144 cyclists departed Auburn to begin the third stage of the Amgen Tour of California.

The 122-mile route took them along the foothills and through Oakdale before heading down Bentley Road toward Modesto and the day’s finish. Six years ago, Bentley Road’s pavement was in good shape – good enough for the world’s best cyclists on the world’s highest-tech bikes.

I spent that afternoon hanging out in a pasture with the folks from the Steuve Dairy, who barbecued and gave wagon rides as they waited for the crews, leaders and the pelaton to whiz past. With that memory, driving Bentley Road now reminds me of pictures you’ll see posted online of abandoned Olympic venues in places like Sarajevo and Athens, forgotten and crumbling.

Because after the first soaking-wet winter in five years and following years of neglect due to the lack of money, if the Amgen cyclists took Bentley Road today, they would need mountain bikes. Or trail horses. Or Jeeps.

It certainly would behoove drivers to heed the “Rough Road” signs topped by flashing yellow lights, installed about two weeks ago because previous attempts at patching the potholes over the winter simply were futile. But they don’t. They zoom down the road, dodging chuckholes and missing chunks of pavement that make it, in spots, a one-lane road.

“And we’ve got literally hundreds of roads just like it,” said Matt Machado, Stanislaus County’s public works director.

That is why he and Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa both support Gov. Brown’s plans to generate $5.2 billion a year to repair roads and expand mass transit through a 12-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax and other fees. The underfunding, neglect and inability to repair has gone on way too long. Passing the tax, they say, will create more money pools to rebuild or repair the county’s 1,500 miles of roads and outdated bridges.

“It’s no different than Oroville,” Chiesa said, referring to the lack of maintenance to the Oroville Dam spillway that failed over the winter. Repairing the spillway will cost well over 10 times more to repair (over $200 million) than it did to build ($20 million) in the late 1960s.

Similarly, the lack of road upkeep has set the county roughly $75 million behind in repairs. Though the Measure L half-cent self-help tax passed resoundingly in November, collecting the revenues didn’t begin until last Saturday. And while Measure L is expected to generate $38 million a year, that money will be split between the county and its nine cities, meaning Machado will see about $5 million a year for road repairs. It won’t do Bentley Road or any other century-old road much good in the short term.

“We’re putting together a project – a scope/cost estimate,” he said. “But we’re not sure we can afford to fix it, so we’re going to keep ‘Band-Aiding’ it until we can do some real repair.”

The majority of the troubled roads weren’t really even built. They just sort of happened.

“They were market-to-farm roads,” that eventually were paved over, Machado said.

They lack the proper gravel road base that enables them to stay put in a wet winter like the one we just finished. Without it, water gets through normal surface cracks in the pavement and softens the dirt below. The dirt, in turn, can’t support to the weight of the vehicles and breaks up. Likewise, these narrow roads don’t have the firmness where the pavement meets the soft shoulders, and breaks off in chunks whenever heavier vehicles edge off the asphalt.

Fixing the roads, Machado said, beats receiving claim after claim after claim from motorists who damage their cars’ front-end alignment when they hit the chuckholes, hence, the “Rough Road” signs. Those claims are routinely denied.

“And there are lawsuits,” Machado said. “We need to choose how we are going to pay for them and the best way is in maintenance (not settlements).”

The politicians will lobby each other, threaten each other, and risk their reputations and futures on supporting the largest tax increase in the state’s history. Machado and others in his position throughout the state see only big holes in the pavement and yellow signs, blinking light on top, that read, “Rough Road.”

Meanwhile, when Amgen returns to Modesto next month, the cyclists will leave the downtown and head west. Battered, bumpy Bentley Road isn’t on their map.