A massive storm ravaged Santa Cruz County in the winter of 2016-17, causing extensive damage to the road system. Now, after $120 million in damage, county officials fear they won’t be able to access federal funding for the repair effort.
“It’s very much unprecedented, very much out of the experience we’ve had for years with natural disasters,” said County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty. “In previous days you could always call an administration, Democrat or Republican, and kind of sort these things out […] and that’s been hard to do in this situation.”
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sets a two-year deadline for local agencies to fully plan repair projects, with an option to apply for extensions. Coonerty said it’s nearly impossible to meet the two-year deadline while following FHWA regulations, so extension requests have become commonplace.
Santa Cruz Department of Public Works (DPW) officials requested extensions from the FHWA in September for over 80 road repairs — totaling about $36 million.
DPW officials expect both the extensions and the federal funding requests will be denied. Due to stricter standards and an uncooperative federal administration, DPW was denied a previous extension in 2018.
Assistant Director of DPW Steve Weisner explained the FHWA only grants extensions if there are delays beyond the control of local departments, which he said is typically the case. Last year, DPW officials applied for extensions, citing the 2016-17 winter storms as delays beyond their control. The FHWA didn’t find their argument sufficient.
“[The storms] delayed any other work we were doing […] We look at that as an act of God that took all our resources,” Weisner said. “But they specifically say ‘lack of resources or financing are not reasons beyond your control.’”
After the storms, Valencia Elementary School students were forced to relocate for the rest of the school year because they couldn’t access the school.
“The main way in was totally out of commission. […] There was a real concern that we’d end up trapped there,” said Valencia Principal Caryn Lane. “It was scary overall and logistically it was a challenge.”
The district had to temporarily switch to several smaller buses due to concerns about the safety of the drive. Today, even with a functional main entrance, unfixed damage on Valencia Road has led to reduced bus service around the school. Lane said some parents are concerned about driving the stretch and take detours to avoid it — resulting in increased tardies and absences.
Weisner predicted it could be five to 10 years for damaged infrastructure like Valencia Road to be fixed. He indicated the damage could get worse if things aren’t repaired soon.
Yet quick repairs are almost impossible. Without federal funding, projects would be paid for using the county’s limited budget. According to County Supervisor Ryan Coonerty, there isn’t enough money in the road budget to cover the damage and maintain the current road system.
“That money doesn’t just magically appear, and more often than not it means that we aren’t keeping up the maintenance on our existing roads,” Coonerty said. “That then causes our roads to fall into disrepair and costs more money over time. […] It also potentially means that some roads don’t get fixed.”
However, officials have not given up hope. Weisner said DPW spent significant time and resources on the recent extension requests, hoping to present the FHWA with something hard to reject. Weisner said he expects to hear whether their extension requests have been granted by mid-November.
There’s also a bill on the floor of the House of Representatives — proposed by California representatives Anna Eshoo and Jimmy Panetta — that would increase the FHWA deadline from two to six years. However, Coonerty said their bill is unlikely to be voted on anytime soon.
“Coming up this week is the 30th anniversary of the earthquake in Santa Cruz. And the President — the first George Bush — came and toured Santa Cruz and worked collaboratively with a very liberal city council to provide relief to this community when it needed it,” Coonerty said. “We’ve just watched collapse of bipartisanship and of government doing good to do good.”