by Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen
For the past 43 years, David Slopak has delivered mail to the residents of Madrone Canyon, a redwood-shaded enclave in Larkspur where homes sell for more than $1 million.
Slopak estimates that he’s twisted his ankles at least 50 times because of potholes and cracked pavement in the winding, narrow roads.
“If you walk up and down the street you'll see potholes that you can't imagine that haven’t been fixed forever,” he said on a recent Saturday as he made his rounds.
Larkspur’s roads are tied for with Napa's St. Helena for the worst in the Bay Area, according to pavement quality rankings published by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission this month. Larkspur, with median household income of $83,000, is among the wealthier cities in Bay Area. But the quality of Larkspur’s pavement ranks below some of the Bay Area’s poorest communities.
Officials say the low-quality roads are due to lack of money. Other cities have passed taxes to pay for road maintenance. But Larkspur, with its charming downtown, 12,000 residents and 64 miles of roads, has not. The city stands out in liberal Marin County for its small-government bent.
“It reflects a relatively conservative government that for a long period of time has taken a limited view of government’s role,” said Steve Kinsey, a Marin County supervisor whose district includes parts of Larkspur. “On top of that they have not passed any bond funding for their local roads whereas Novato and San Rafael have.”
The transportation commission gave Larkspur and St. Helena pavement a score 44 out of 100, the worst in the Bay Area. At the top of the list was suburban Brentwood in Contra Costa County with a score of 86, followed by Belvedere, a wealthy Marin County town, with 85. The scores are based on regularly performed roadway inspections.
Theresa Romell, a senior planner at the transportation commission, said it is not unheard of for rich towns to have bad roads. The tony Peninsula suburb of Hillsborough was long at the bottom of the list, she said. Money for roads from the state and federal government is doled out according to a formula – and local property taxes don’t figure in. If cities don’t approve local taxes, they can run out of money for repair, she said.
Larkspur Mayor Len Rifkind told The Bay Citizen that the city will look to put a revenue measure on the ballot next year to pay for roads and other infrastructure. The City Council had considered a tax measure in 2011, but decided it didn’t want to compete with a school bond, he said. While the roads in the Larkspur hills are in rougher shape, he noted, the city has kept the arterial roads in good condition.
“Do we have baby-butt smooth roads? No,” Rifkind said. “But people are not driving through dirt or gigantic chuckholes.”
Hamid Shamsapour, Larkspur's director of public works, took issue with being labeled the worst. He said his department has focused on repairing three bridges – as well as the major thoroughfares in town. The city fills potholes on the local streets, he said, but can’t get grants to repave them.
“The worst roads is not really nice terminology,” he said. “The worst roads are roads that are unsafe. They (Larkspur’s roads) may not be the prettiest, but they are safe.”
The poor pavement perplexes some residents.
“This community has got a lot of money ... so it seems like we should be doing better with the roads,” said Ben Soccorsy, who was jogging in Madrone Canyon. “Our priorities are kind of whacked out.”
Slopak, the letter carrier, theorizes that some residents actually appreciate having potholes in the streets because they slow down traffic.
“There’s a lot of people that like the roads in decrepit condition so it hinders people from speeding through here,” Slopak said.
And real estate agents say it hasn’t prevented people from buying expensive homes in Larkspur, where the median price is $1.1 million.
“They want the location, they want the charm, they want the schools,” said Realtor Niz Brown. “The roads are what the roads are.”
But some longtime residents say it’s time for the city to start paying more attention. Sharon Tilley, who was biking with her son, said the potholes can be dangerous.
“It’s embarrassing,” she said, “and it’s a safety hazard.”
Lonny Shavelson contributed to this report. This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.