Illustration by Ella Apuntar

After a year of requests, Santa Cruz County secured about $46 million in emergency repair funds to address 84 road service projects. But the path to securing those funds was difficult, said Santa Cruz County’s director of the Public Works Department (PWD) Matt Machado, who oversees the county’s infrastructure projects.

“We had to work really hard — trips to D.C., trips to Sacramento, gathering a huge amount of allies and stakeholders and partners — to show the impact [of funding] on California,” Machado said.

In 2016 and 2017, winter storms left Santa Cruz County’s roads in disrepair. The destruction, which included landslides, floods and sinkholes, caused over $120 million in damages across 200 sites, including Aptos’ Valencia Road, which collapsed in February 2017, blocking access to Valencia Elementary School.

Santa Cruz County’s 2016-17 storm damage was the most costly in the state that year, according to a press release from Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (CA-18) and Congressman Jimmy Panetta (CA-20), who both worked to secure funds on the federal level.

With the new federal funding, the PWD will repair Valencia Road in two high-priority construction projects, the first slated to begin this year. The second job will begin in 2021, Machado said.

Machado credits Eshoo and Panetta as key players in securing federal funds.

“I truly believe the only reason we got the [funding] is because we were able through partnerships and stakeholders to help educate and inform the federal government of our plight,” Machado said. “Congressman Panetta and Congresswoman Eshoo [and] our own board of supervisors really went to bat for us.”

The county worked with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to obtain federal aid to fix its roads. The FHWA oversees the nation’s highway system by supporting state and local infrastructure initiatives. When natural disasters overwhelm state and local governments, FEMA can also offer aid.

But the process of obtaining funds from the FHWA was unusually problematic for California and Santa Cruz County, Machado said. Santa Cruz County Second District Supervisor Zach Friend, who worked directly to obtain federal aid from the FHWA, said the same, pointing attention to the FHWA’s required spending window.

The FHWA imposes a two-year deadline for states and local governments to spend FHWA federal aid. Once the spending window closes, they can apply for one-year extensions. But the state and county had problems obtaining those extensions after winter storms.

“Historically, these [extensions] were granted 100 percent of the time,” Friend said. “So for us, our community, the communities across the country, it was surprising, to say the least, that there were denials of extensions when the timeline that’s provided to build them was impossible to meet because of the federal process.”

California was the only state denied a funds extension last year, Friend said.

After multiple requests to grant emergency repair aid last year, the FHWA finally granted emergency relief funds for California infrastructure projects last week. About three quarters of the $46 million the county will receive this year will be federal aid, Machado said.

Regardless, Machado and Friend said the FHWA deadlines are too short to complete most projects. With lobbying help from the California State Association of Counties and the County Engineers Association of California, Machado hopes to change the federal law in the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act of 2019, which will be up for reauthorization this year, and extend the spending window to six years. A change to the federal  law would allow states and counties more time to complete projects.

“California is the subject of a lot of emergencies and storm damage, and so this is a big topic to everybody,” Machado said. “Santa Cruz probably has the most at stake this time, but we know that every time there’s a major storm or a declaration of emergency, a lot of real people are affected, so it really does affect the entire state.”