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Costly Rebuild Ahead After Storms Crumble Roads

The recent storms have not only brought much-needed water to drought-stricken California, they have also brought massive damage to highways and roads. The California Department of Transportation estimates there has been nearly $500 million in storm damage to the state’s highway system. In unincorporated Santa Cruz County alone, the bill for damaged roads has reached over $30 million. As Santa Cruz County officials figure out how to pay for the damage, some residents are not waiting for help.

Greg Prussia shovels dirt into a big pothole on the gravel road he lives on. The pothole is about 5 feet wide and full of dirty brown water.

“We’re just trying to repair the potholes with dirt or gravel that we already have that has been washed off the road from erosion,” says Prussia.

He’s getting help from his neighbors. They live in a rural part of unincorporated Santa Cruz County outside of Aptos on Flume Road.

“We refer to this road where we live here as… we live out in Flumetucky and it’s in the State of Aptalacha,” Prussia says.

The neighborhood sits among giant Redwood trees, well off main roads, so the residents are used to doing their own road repairs.

“We are always in the middle of repairing our road, but of course this year is 100 times worse than other years,” Prussia says.

He points out the splattering of potholes along Flume Road.

“That’s sort of medium to big and then that’s medium to small and then that’s small and then that one down there is big and then on and on and on,” says Prussia.

More evidence of storm damage is right around the corner on Valencia Road, the nearest paved street for the neighborhood.

What used to be a two lane street is now just one lane after a group of Redwood trees collapsed and took out part of the roadway. Surveying the damage is Santa Cruz County Public Works Director John Presleigh.

“This is going to be expensive. It could be $3 - $500,000, just this one site,” Presleigh says.

It’s one of more than 130 damaged road sites across unincorporated Santa Cruz County, part of the $30 million repair tab that’s still growing.

“This damage just keeps coming with this rainfall. It’s blowing out our roadway sections, blowing out the hillsides and it’s underneath our roads. It’s… literally our roads are collapsing out there,” Presleigh says.

You can tell Presleigh hasn’t gotten much sleep; neither have the crews who have been working 12 hour shifts. This winter is the second wettest for Santa Cruz County since 1873 - when they first started keeping records - and it’s exposing how fragile the roadway system is today.

“These are old roads but the problem is we don’t have enough resources to do maintenance anymore. The gas tax that we have right now is essentially the same we got in 1993. We are living on 1993 dollars essentially for maintenance,” Presleigh says.

Now the county is trying to figure out how to pay the $30 million dollar bill. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Zach Friend says it will be a combination of local, state and federal funds. But he says a majority of the funding is expected to come from the state and the federal government. But that funding is a reimbursement, and getting the money back can take years. In the meantime, the county is going to have to come up with the money itself.

“We have had those discussions at the county about where would the money come from, where would we borrow and how would we go into the red. And if we need to do it on our own, we are going to find a way on our own because really there’s no other option, there’s no Plan B for people that live up here,” Friend says.

Last weekend, Supervisor Friend and other county officials showed U.S. Congressman Jimmy Panetta some of the hardest hit roads. The hope is that Panetta can expedite the federal reimbursement process.

One of the areas they looked at was also on Valencia Road, in Aptos. The culvert failed and you can hear the water rushing beneath the road.

“I mean this is going to be… this is going to be millions… millions and millions of dollars, just to repair this one road right here. There are 130 sites in Santa Cruz County that need to be worked on. 130. You know how long that’s going to take… do you know how much money that’s going to take?” Panetta says.

The Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works says it could take 3 to 5 years to fix all of the roads. Collecting all of the money could take even longer.