Rally Around the Pothole

#99, September 4, 2002


I had the nagging suspicion I had seen this before: candidates hammering on a single issue; bitterly sarcastic letters to the editor; a carefully timed campaign to whip up fear among the voting public. I remembered, yes, it was two years ago. Traffic congestion. A City Council majority who’d rather fund another study than move ahead with the Rainier project. They frittered while we gridlocked. Throw the bums out!


Turn the clock ahead two years, replace congestion with potholes, and you have Petaluma Election 2002. Let me tell you why I think the street repair problem is being exaggerated, why this potholy war is part of a campaign to make the City Council less environmentally friendly by removing Matt Maguire and Janice Cader-Thompson.


I have no reason to question the results of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission survey, which a few months ago rated Petaluma streets worst among Bay Area cities. I agree that our infrastructure – including roads, as well as storm drains and sewers, and side walks – needs more attention then it’s been getting over the past decade.


But where was the pothole crisis two years ago? For a baseline, I first searched this year’s newspaper online archives, looking for anything with “pothole” and “Petaluma.” Forty two items came up, with over thirty specifically addressing the pothole controversy. Then I searched for all of the year 2000. Eight items total turned up. One was about how paving problems affected streetlights. Three were about Measure C, where pothole repair was second billing to mass transit. Two addressed the potholed soccer field at Luchessi Park. One, concerning a play at Cinnabar, spoke of “angst and potholes in marriage.” One reported on a gymnast hampered by “little potholes of injuries.''


Did the streets take a sudden nosedive in the past two years? Or are we being led by the nose, victimized by some passionate propagandists? Why haven’t these folks organized in support of a funding campaign, as we did years ago when our school buildings needed repair?


Here’s more evidence. A revised report from the MTC puts Petaluma a little higher up the list, ahead of not only Cloverdale but unincorporated Sonoma County. Thus, we should have expected to see the “Street Fighters”, as Councilmember Moynihan calls them on his website, going after County Supervisor Mike Kerns with their yellow spray paint, bumper stickers and banner-toting aircraft. County roads were worse than Petaluma’s, yet there was but one item containing “Kerns” and “pothole” in the paper in all of 2000-2001 (and that one was about Measure C.)


And what happened to the traffic congestion disease, for which Rainier was the cure? Don’t expect to hear Mr. Moynihan or Council candidate Mike Harris using the R word like they used to. That’s because Rainier, with a price tag equal to a quarter of the $140 million road fix backlog, would have been the black hole of pothole repair funds. Thankfully the Council, with leadership from Maguire and Cader-Thompson, was more fiscally prudent. Synchronizing the timing of the stoplights, which cost next to nothing, has had a significant impact in reducing congestion along Washington. The $6 million improvements to the Washington-McDowell intersection, now under way, will reduce the average delay there by nearly two-thirds.


It comes down to priorities. Six members of the Council have now agreed to a goal of at bringing our streets up to an index of 70, basically grade C. That’s not good enough for Moynihan, who wants a B grade. I’d be for that, too, if the B were free. But if getting the B meant that we couldn’t add a downtown patrol officer, or rehabilitate those potholed soccer fields, or build the riverwalk or a cultural art center, forget it (actually, just getting the C would require a new tax or cutting City staff by several dozen heads.) I’ll settle for a C in paving if I can get As and Bs in community safety and recreation.


Matt and Janice are two hard-working, creative, and responsive Council Members at risk of being swept from office by this orchestrated pothole hysteria. Don’t let it happen.