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Petaluma in line for $85M in highway funding

A highway widening project in Petaluma is in line for nearly $85 million in state funding, a major boost that could complete a decades-long effort to ease traffic in Sonoma County and also spur construction of the Rainier Avenue extension across Petaluma.

Staff at the California Transportation Commission have recommended Sonoma County’s Highway 101 project for $84.7 million in funding. The commission meets next week in San Diego to appropriate funds from the new state gas tax increase through the so-called Congested Corridors program.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority was one of nine agencies to be recommended for funding out of 32 that submitted bids in February. Supervisor David Rabbitt, an SCTA board member, said the state commission initially only recommended eight projects, leaving the Petaluma project off the list. But after a Sonoma County site visit by the CTC staff and commissioners, Rabbitt said they added the local project for funding.

“It was great that they were here to see what we rely on,” Rabbitt said. “Those visits pay off. I’m very pleased that staff has recommended to fund our project.”

If approved next week, the money would be appropriated for the 2018-19 fiscal year and would complete the funding package for the $121 million project to add a third lane to Highway 101 from the Petaluma River to Corona Road.

“The recommendations include projects that provide a variety of multimodal transportation improvements in highly traveled and highly congested corridors,” the CTC wrote in a report. “These projects will reduce congestion in highly traveled corridors, have positive environmental impacts and provide benefits to communities throughout California.”

Other projects on the list include a metro rail station in Los Angeles, an Interstate project in Sacramento and Highway 101 improvements in San Mateo and Santa Barbara counties.

Amy McPherson, a spokeswoman for the CTC, said the projects went through a rigorous review before staff made its recommendation. She said the full commission still needs to vote on the funding, but making it on the short list is the most difficult hurdle.

“There’s been a lot of discussion with staff and commissioners and they are more or less on the same page,” she said. “I don’t expect any dramatic changes.”

Sonoma County officials hope to finish construction on the Petaluma project by the end of 2021, completing a more than $1 billion effort to widen Highway 101 from the Marin County line to Windsor that began in 2001. South of the county line, Marin officials plan to use new bridge toll money, if a ballot initiative passes in June, to widen Highway 101 to Novato.

The CTC funding is subject to an effort to repeal the gas tax increase, known as SB1. State Republicans are in the process of submitting signatures to qualify a repeal on the November ballot. If successful, Sonoma County could lose the funding since its project will not likely break ground by November, McPherson said.

“In the event of a repeal ... it would depend on timing,” she said. “It could be bad for folks that want to improve that roadway.”

The highway project, through the heart of Petaluma, would facilitate the city’s long planned Rainier crosstown connector. Rainier Avenue would extend from the Deer Creek shopping center, under a newly raised freeway, and over the Petaluma River and SMART train tracks to end at Petaluma Boulevard.

Petaluma Councilwoman Kathy Miller, an SCTA board member, said the agency has been working hard to secure funding to complete the Highway 101 project. She said she is cautiously optimistic that the funding will be approved next week.

“We’re not counting our chickens before they’re hatched,” she said. “If we get it, I think it’s huge. I might do cartwheels down the middle of the street.”

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