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Italian Bar Rad low on county repair list

Item: More than 50 residents of Italian Bar Road, a long and winding dirt track linking Columbia and Twain Harte via Jupiter, last week asked the Tuolumne County Public Works Department to fix the potholed, washboarded byway before winter storms make it even worse.

First the good news: It is commendable that more than 50 residents of the isolated hills and hollows along Italian Bar managed to politically unite behind this cause and speak with one voice to their county supervisors and road officials.

Think about it: These are people who treasure their isolation and do without the traditional neighborhoods most of us take for granted. They live off the grid, without conventional electricity or phone service. Many are rugged individualists, forgoing amenities in return for a life that's closer to the 19th century than the 21st.

That they could get politically active at all is remarkable.

But their very individualism leads to the bad news: The residents of Italian Bar have made a lifestyle choice, opting to settle on a 30-mile dirt road that is one of the county's most isolated and sparsely traveled. That road, although it may be in poor shape, deserves no more attention than its mileage, population and traffic counts warrant.

Which is probably very little.

To their credit, the residents who met with county officials last week did not ask that the road be paved, a multimillion dollar job that is financially and logically out of the question. But even the pothole, grading, drainage and clearing work they requested may be more than the county can afford or should spend.

County Road Superintendent Barry Bynum said the county's annual repair budget for more than 600 miles of road is $375,000. That comes to about $600 a mile — or approximately $18,000 for the length of Italian Bar — if split evenly among all county roads.

Trouble is, that makes no sense: The county's more heavily traveled roads, used by far more taxpayers, deserve a larger slice of the maintenance pie.

At its very busiest point, just beyond the Columbia State Historic Park boundary at Heidi Lane, Italian Bar gets about 1,000 cars a day.

Although no counts have been done beyond that intersection, traffic, no doubt, drops precipitously beyond the 49er RV Ranch and beyond Cattle Drive Trail, where the pavement ends.

By the time the road winds into Jupiter, daily traffic counts are probably not a whole lot higher than the town's population of 64 (2000 census).

In contrast consider Soulsbyville Road, one of many Tuolumne County routes overdue for maintenance. A little more than three miles long, it carries about 5,000 cars and trucks a day. It is used not only by the nearly 70 residences and businesses on it, but by through traffic, hundreds of parents bringing kids to and from Soulsbyville School and residents of several subdivisions in the area.

Italian Bar Road, on the other hand, has no schools, virtually no through traffic and, according to Tuolumne County tax rolls, only about 60 homes. "But we all know there are a lot more," added County Supervisor Paolo Maffei at last week's meeting. "They just aren't on the tax rolls."

Which means their owners don't pay county taxes and would not help fund any repairs done on the road.

In conclusion, the county was probably right in promising Italian Bar residents to "do what we can with our limited resources."

But in determining what work to do and how much to pay for it, Public Works officials should make sure their decision is not only fair to the residents of Italian Bar Road, but to many thousands of Tuolumne County taxpayers who don't live or drive on it.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.

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