The pace isn't much faster than commute-hour traffic, but plans for improving and widening Highway 101 between Petaluma and Novato to ease the legendary traffic congestion and improve safety standards appear to be creeping steadily forward.

An important step was taken a couple weeks ago when the California Transportation Commission approved $82 million to replace and widen the highway bridges crossing the Petaluma River at the south end of town. Construction on the project is expected to begin later this year.

Coupled with previously approved projects – including the concurrent construction of a new interchange at Petaluma Boulevard South and new frontage roads between Petaluma and the county line that will close off the numerous side streets and driveways that dump slow-moving traffic directly onto the highway — it's clear that progress is finally being made to improve the dangerous and substandard roadway known as the Marin-Sonoma Narrows, the last remaining section of Highway 101 between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Mendocino county line not upgraded to state freeway standards.

It didn't always look this promising. Five years ago, when state officials awarded $4.5 billion in transportation bond funding, the Narrows got exactly zero dollars, and legitimate questions arose about why Petaluma's transportation needs were being so thoroughly ignored.

In response, Petaluma's federal, state, county and city elected officials took notice and subsequently hammered out a plan that included redirecting some of the state bond monies to the Narrows. Now, it appears, their work is finally beginning to pay off.

The ongoing East Washington interchange project, which broke ground late last year, will be a huge help to local motorists who are often caught in the back-up at the substandard junction created by vehicles waiting to make left turns to get onto the freeway headed north and south.

The highway itself will soon be realigned and raised at San Antonio Road near the county line, eliminating the flooding that routinely closes the vital artery during even moderate storms.

Replacement of the Petaluma River Bridge is the next big project.

The big question, of course, is when additional lanes will be added to the freeway through town and south to Novato.

Commuters headed north to work are now able to breeze along on three lanes, but commuters headed south are not so lucky.

While the aforementioned improvements will reduce southbound commuting time, the real relief will come when the freeway is finally widened to three lanes in each direction from northern Petaluma to Novato.

The freeway widening through Petaluma is also necessary to enable construction of the long-awaited Rainier underpass, a voter-mandated project that the city is charged with funding.

While the recession and loss of the city's redevelopment agency have threatened that project, many millions of dollars to fund its development will come when construction is finalized in the next two years on two approved shopping centers.

As is evident, a freeway widening project is done in steps and stages, and funding to complete the final phase has yet to be secured. But if Petaluma's elected officials — local, state and federal — stay focused, they should be able to finish the job by the end of the decade.