Tom O'Kane, the Sonoma County official responsible for fixing roads and bridges, at
pothole patched and re-patched Irwin Lane, voted by Road Warrior readers as the
worst road in the county. Press Democrat photo by Jeff Kan Lee

Irwin Lane’s a bucolic, country road west of Santa Rosa that runs a mere 1.6 miles from Highway 12 to Hall Road. But it’s also Sonoma County’s worst road.

And it’s not going to get any better.

“The shoulders are eroding, there are huge potholes and I have to drive down the center to get a smooth ride,” said Joan Maxwell, who has lived on Irwin Lane for 17 years.

In an informal poll, Maxwell and other readers of the Road Warrior voted Irwin Lane, with its pothole patches upon patches, as the road in worst repair. Click here to see how readers voted.

But county road boss Tom O’Kane disagrees.

“I’m not doubting that Irwin Lane shouldn’t be be paved, but there are hundreds and hundreds of miles of roads” in the county that need to be and there are worse roads than Irwin, he said.

“Have you been on Frei Road, between 116 and Guerneville?” he asked last week as he stood along Irwin Lane. “In Monte Rio — just pick a road.”

In Boyes Hot Springs, there’s Mulberry, Orchard, Poplar. West of Petaluma there’s Spring Hill Road. All, he said, in worse shape than Irwin Lane.

He might be right. There are spots along Frei Road that will make your teeth rattle. And Spring Hill Road is guaranteed to send your car to the alignment shop.

While Irwin Lane may not be the worst, it’s today’s poster child for roads throughout the county that are crumbling and are likely to continue to do so.

“We have the worst roads in the metropolitan area,” acknowledged O’Kane, deputy director of the county Transportation and Public Works Department. “But we have an inordinate number of miles of roads” compared to other Bay Area counties.

But O’Kane and county Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose west county district has the unenviable distinction of including Irwin Lane, Frei Road and Monte Rio roads, both plead poverty when it comes to fixing roads.

“I’m not happy that some of the worst roads are in my district,” Carrillo said, but budget cuts have made road repairs “a challenge the county has been dealing with for years.”

Carrillo, noting he shares “the angst of constituents” over roads, said he uses Irwin “constantly,” but there are worse roads, although he declined to name his worst.

O’Kane said that after steady staff and budget cuts over the last several years, the public works department doesn’t have the manpower or money to try to keep up on the 1,382 miles of county-maintained roads.

He noted that nationwide the standard for road maintenance is one road worker for every 8 to 10 miles. Sonoma County has one for every 33 miles, he said.

O’Kane blames the county’s money woes on the continuing state budget crisis and traces the county’s problems to passage of property tax-limiting Proposition 13 in 1978, which also put state legislators in charge of allocating property tax revenue among counties and cities.

“People got scammed on Prop. 13,” O’Kane said.

He said it pains him not to be able to do much for local roads. He took the Sonoma County job two years ago after working for Alexandria, Va., where he had the money to fix roads.

“Some of the roads here are like in a Third World county,” he said.

For now, he said, the county focuses on main roads. Federal stimulus money has paid for a number of major chip sealing projects, and more are being done, but minor roads, such as Irwin, don’t qualify for such federal aid.

As a result, “we’re not doing anything but pothole patching” them, O’Kane said.

Cheryl Salzmann, an Irwin Lane resident for seven years, said she’s called and emailed the county about the road’s problems but never got a response.

She said she realizes the county doesn’t have a lot of money but said many drivers use Irwin to cut across from Highway 12 to Occidental Road or Hall Road.

“All they do is patch and re-patch,” she said. “They need to really fix it.”

Irwin resident Maxwell said she hasn’t complained to the county because Irwin’s bumps do have a positive side effect — “it slows people down.”

But will Irwin Lane ever really get fixed?

“Sometime in the future we may get to it,” O’Kane said.