Upfront: Drake News Alert

How a minor road repair became a major pain in the asphalt

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The county recently installed a portable traffic-light system, complete with solar panels, along Sir Francis Drake. Photo by Tom Gogola.

It turns out that “Why didn’t you just fix the road?” is a more complicated question than it appears when it comes to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard (the Drake).

Toward the end of last winter, when multiple, wind-lashed rainstorms caused a state-leading $9 million in damage to Marin County roads, a small section of the Drake broke off the renowned roadway, on a winding part of the passage just east of the turnoff to the Platform Bridge Road.

The small chunk of asphalt that fell down the banks of the parallel-running Lagunitas Creek meant that eastbound cars had to veer, ever so slightly, into the westbound lane, to avoid the jagged edge of broken asphalt. Marin County Department of Public Works (DPW) crews were quickly on hand after the partial road failure and installed street signs that warned of “changed conditions ahead.”

A determination was made at the county level that the partial collapse of the road did not rise to the level of an emergency, and therefore, the partial failure was not immediately repaired. An emergency declaration would have meant that the road would be repaired immediately and before all the necessary permits were filed to do the work next to the sensitive and well-tended Lagunitas Creek. The creek enjoys various environmental protections at the local, state and federal levels, mostly owing to the waterway’s status as one of, if not the hardiest coho salmon–hosting creeks in the state.

So they didn’t fix the road. It wasn’t that big of a deal.

Instead, the road breach got a little worse through the spring, and then got a little worse over the summer. Over a period of months, eastbound drivers had to veer just a bit more into the westbound lane to avoid the space where the asphalt had been. By autumn, the Drake had been undermined to such an extent that it effectively rendered that section of the well-travelled route a one-way road. Stop signs were then installed, in recognition that the non-emergency was emerging as something that sure looked like an emergency.

But Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni says that the stop signs were not sufficient to allay DPW fears of a head-on collision at this winding section of road. And so the county just installed a portable traffic-light system, complete with solar panels, along Sir Francis Drake. The Drake is now a one-lane road at this chokepoint, complete with Jersey barricades that protect one of the actual traffic lights from getting hit by a car.

So why didn’t they just fix the road? Well, it’s complicated, says Rodoni, and it’s hard to argue with that. An emergency declaration would have meant that the emergency roadwork would have been undertaken without permits from multiple agencies that have a stake in roads and salmon—state, federal, local agencies all have a hand in the permitting process. Getting the permits after the fact, says Rodoni, is an expensive proposition. More expensive than renting portable traffic lights and letting a non-emergency and slightly damaged road become a heavily damaged actual emergency, for a year?

Yes, he says. The issue is not academic in a region with scant few emergency routes into and out of West Marin, and one key road that’s already been knocked out of commission since the winter.

In the first year of his first term as a Marin County Supervisor, Rodoni acknowledges that the breach on the Drake “has gotten worse month by month.” He and the DPW didn’t expect the road to disintegrate to the extent it has, he says. “We were surprised it got worse in the dry weather.”

The county has been able to get some but not all of the permitting in place to fix the road. “At the end of the day, the constructions costs may be less because of not having an emergency declared and also the cost of the permits. It’s a balancing act.”

The road’s been secured for the winter, Rodoni says, and the portable traffic lights will be there until the repairs are undertaken in the spring. “There is no other alternative at this point,” he says, “but to make sure it stays safe, and maintain the single lane until spring.”

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