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Taxes eyed for critical Petaluma highway projects

This year could be a monumental one for local transportation projects, with potential funding sources at all levels of government for highway widening and local street repair. Transportation officials are optimistic after years of stagnant funding, but caution that much of the money will need to be approved by voters.

“For the first time in a generation, Sonoma County will see significant investment from the state of California in our roads, bridges and highways,” State Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) said. “New revenue could not come at a more urgent time.”

The final pieces of the Highway 101 widening project through Petaluma and the Sonoma-Marin Narrows are within sight, transportation officials said. Funding could come from an increase in bridge tolls, which voters will be asked to approve in June, and from a gas tax measure that the state legislature passed last year. A measure to repeal the gas tax, though, could be on the November ballot.

“2018 is a very important year for the future of the 101 corridor,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “But we’re not going to know where we stand until the end of the year.”

The highway project, which for the past two decades has added a third lane from north of Petaluma to Windsor, needs about $170 million to complete the sections from Petaluma to Novato. The ongoing work at the county line south of Petaluma is expected to wrap up at the end of 2019, leaving a piece of unwidened highway from Corona Road to Lakeville Highway and another piece from the county line to Novato.

The bridge toll increase, which will likely be put to Bay Area voters in June, could raise funding to complete the portion through the Narrows.

Officials are eying money from SB1, the 12-cent gas tax increase that is expected to raise billions for state and local infrastructure projects, to fund the piece through Petaluma. Smith expects to hear from the state in May weather the project is approved for funding.

If Sonoma County receives the green light, the project would start in 2019 and finish in 2022. It would include access for a future extension of Rainier Avenue across Petaluma.

California Republicans are currently gathering signatures for a ballot initiative that would repeal the gas tax, meaning the funding for the Petaluma widening project would vanish if a potential repeal measure passes.

“If the gas tax is repealed, we get nothing,” Smith said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who serves on the SCTA, said the gas tax repeal would be devastating for infrastructure projects. The gas tax includes millions in funding for county and city street repair projects. Rabbitt said gas tax money could be tapped in the future to fund improvements on Highway 37, a $1 billion project.

Rabbitt views the gas tax repeal as a cynical move to drive Republican voters to the polls in a midterm election that is largely expected to be a referendum on the Trump administration. But, he said, he was taking the effort seriously.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel for freeway widening, which is great,” he said. “With the gas tax, we will see a great improvement. It’s exciting, but it’s all kind of tenuous.”

McGuire said voters will be asked in June to approve a constitutional amendment that would ensure new gas tax revenue is only spent on transportation projects. He said the measure, known as ACA5, will give voters confidence that the funding is in “a lock box.”

Also on the November ballot, Sonoma County voters may be asked to extend Measure M, the quarter-cent sales tax that funds the SCTA and provides the local match that most state funding requires. The measure, which expires in 2024, has mostly been spent, and an extension would likely include more funding for local road repairs.

Rabbitt said officials are discussing whether to increase the measure to a half-cent sales tax, but he said the October wildfires and subsequent costly rebuilding process could dampen voters’ mood for an increase.

“No one really knows what the appetite is after the fires,” he said. “But we are definitely going to need to extend the measure.”

Underlying the new state and local transportation funding is a potential federal infrastructure spending bill. The Trump administration has sought a $1 trillion package, which could include road and highway projects. With tax reform and health care in the rear view, Congress will likely turn to infrastructure as its next big priority.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)