Rough roads hurt rural safety, economy


Issue Date: September 18, 2019
By Kevin Hecteman
Potholes and rough pavement, such as shown here in Sacramento County, can damage trucks and the crops they carry. A recent study found 32% of California’s rural roads are in poor shape--the second-worst percentage in the nation. In some areas, the maintenance backlog will take years, if not decades, to clear.
Photo/Steve Adler

Regardless of commodity or location, everything California farmers and ranchers produce has one thing in common—it all has to hit the road sometime.

Roads connect the farm or ranch and its customers, and too many roads are in rough shape.

The latest study from transportation nonprofit TRIP found 32% of California's rural roads to be in poor condition—the second-highest percentage in the nation, behind Rhode Island—and 9% of its rural bridges to be deficient.

Rural roads are deadlier, too, the study found. Fatality rates on California's non-interstate rural roads were the second-highest in the nation.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, road conditions are rated by the Federal Highway Administration using an International Roughness Index. It measures vehicle-suspension movement in inches per mile; an index reading of 170 or more inches per mile indicates a road in poor condition.

Virginia Hemly Chhabra, who runs a pear and apple packinghouse in Sacramento County, said poor roads can cause crop damage.

"There are some places that, really, if we could stop bouncing so much, the fruit would be so much happier," Chhabra said. "The commodities that we deal with, mainly pears and apples, are hand-harvested and apples in particular are a little on the delicate side."

In her area, drawbridges connect towns and regions over the Sacramento River and its many sloughs. A bridge out of service can become an expensive inconvenience, as when the bridge near Courtland was closed longer than expected for painting.

"Our two main branches—our headquarters, where our office is, and then our largest single ranch—are directly across the river from each other. You could hit a golf ball from one to the other. We had to go 15-20 miles out of the way to get there because the bridge was closed for far longer than had been advertised," Chhabra said.

In Monterey County, attention has focused on the stretch of U.S. 101 between the southern end of Salinas and Gonzales: an expressway with cross traffic, much of it agricultural.

"It's a really important road for the agricultural industry in this valley—moving products in and out of fields to coolers and then out to markets from there," said Colby Pereira, a farm manager and president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau.

The South of Salinas 101 Traffic Safety Alliance, in which Pereira participates, has found a high rate of collisions, "particularly due to a lot of really unsafe crossings that cross over lanes of the highway," she said.

County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot said some of Monterey County's worst road conditions exist on rural roads in the Salinas Valley.

"In many instances, roadway maintenance has been deferred for many decades," Groot said, "and with today's busier truck and car traffic, the older construction methods of these rural roads just doesn't hold up."

Bad roads also represent bad news for vehicle maintenance. Paul Arnaudo, who works in commercial trucking in Salinas and is a Monterey County Farm Bureau director, said poor roads can lead to premature wear to tires plus suspension and steering components.

"As we see our customer base move to business strategies of tighter operating procedures, the spare and available equipment is less," Arnaudo said. "Any unit that is down now is having a direct effect on production or harvest operations."

Pereira said rural roads shoulder more traffic when a collision on 101 prompts people to look for alternative routes. Another issue, she added, is that "people using their navigation app will just look for a quick fix, and sometimes (the apps) will actually send motorists through our ranches or fields, because they just see what appears to be a road, which is not a paved road. It's a dirt road that cuts through our ranches."

In Sacramento County, Chhabra said she's also noticing an increase in commuters using rural roads to avoid rush-hour traffic on Interstate 5.

In far Northern California, Tom Stewart of Tulelake said the roads "aren't bad." Stewart, a cattle and hay producer, also runs a cattle-hauling business.

But the story changes when he heads south, he added.

"I-5 and (Highway) 99 are some of the roughest," Stewart said. "There's a whole string of potholes on I-5 by Dunnigan right before the 505 split that I've been dodging for three years now."

Californians began paying higher fuel taxes last year, under the Road Repair and Accountability Act of 2017, with the money ticketed for transportation projects around the state.

Robert Spiegel, a California Farm Bureau Federation policy advocate, said it's early yet to see what impact the tax hike will have.

"I'm still very much in a wait-and-see attitude as it relates to the gas tax and whether or not we see the necessary improvements that were promised by the legislation," Spiegel said, adding that rural regions are "some of the communities and areas of the state that have been more or less left out of a lot of the development that we've seen when it comes to being able to meet the transportation goals."

A map of work underway or contemplated using the gas tax money is at rebuildingca.ca.gov/map.html.

At the federal level, AFBF said the America's Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019 authorizes $287 billion from the Highway Trust Fund over five years. The trouble, AFBF noted, is that spending from the trust fund has exceeded revenue by $103 billion since 2008, forcing Congress to bail it out from general revenues.

"Fixing the federal Highway Trust Fund with a long-term, sustainable source of revenue that supports the transportation investment needed will be crucial to the modernization of our rural transportation system," said Will Wilkins, TRIP executive director.

Pereira said improving roads would improve safety.

"Our company, our employees are using this corridor a lot every day," she said of Highway 101. "We want our employees getting home safely to their families. At the end of every day, we want our employees while on the job to be able to move products up and down the corridor safely. And we just want the community to be safe."

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.