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With new bridge toll, Hwy. 101 project fully funded

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Officials celebrated last week’s successful bridge toll measure for transportation projects at the ballot, but cautioned that work to improve Petaluma-area highways would not start immediately.

In unofficial results, Regional Measure 3 passed in the nine Bay Area counties with 54 percent of the vote. The measure will raise tolls on all Bay Area bridges except the Golden Gate by $1 in 2019, and another $1 in both 2022 and 2025.

Money from the $4.5 billion measure is earmarked for Bay Area transportation projects including $120 million to widen Highway 101 from the Sonoma-Marin county line to Novato and $100 million to improve Highway 37, although officials are unclear on those projects’ timelines.

“We got the votes we needed,” said Jake Mackenzie, a Rohnert Park city councilman and chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. “Now we can start to do the hard work.”

Mackenzie said the MTC can borrow against future bridge toll revenues, so much of the money could be available up front. All of the projects listed on the measure’s funding plan will receive money, but grants will be issued based on project needs and construction readiness, he said.

“Obviously everything on the list of projects is not going to get built on the second of January,” he said.

The Highway 101 widening project south of the county line, known as the Sonoma-Marin Narrows, was the last stretch of highway seeking funding in the 20-year effort to add a third freeway lane from Novato to Windsor. A project under construction at the county line should wrap up next year and the section of Highway 101 through Petaluma should break ground around the same time. That project last month was greenlit for funding through revenue from the new state gas tax.

Dianne Steinhauser, executive director of Transportation Authority of Marin, which will oversee construction south of the county line, said the Narrows project won’t be “shovel ready” until the beginning of 2020. Remaining preliminary work includes moving utilities, designing the project and obtaining permits.

With the new bridge tolls in place, she said she is confident the money will be available when they are ready to break ground.

“We can see the end of the tunnel,” she said. “This completes the funding for the last chunk we needed.”

She said, if all goes well, the work should wrap up at the end of 2022, the same time the Highway 101 project through Petaluma is completed.

The Highway 37 funding is more ambiguous, with no concrete plans for the $100 million, officials said. Leaders have acknowledged that the roadway at the top of San Pablo Bay will need to be widened and raised out of a floodplain expected due to sea level rise.

With a multi-billion price tag to complete the work, officials understand that the latest funding promise won’t come close to completing the project, but could pay for preliminary studies, environmental work, or minor improvements like interchange work and lane striping. Early proposals have centered on turning Highway 37 into a toll road to pay for the bulk of the work.

Officials in the four stakeholder counties — Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano — have been meeting regularly for the past two years to plan to project. Those meetings will now likely focus on projects that can be achieved with the new bridge toll funding, Steinhauser said.

“On Highway 37, we don’t know what the $100 million will get us,” she said. “It could be used for support, to get the project shovel ready. It will certainly help with congestion along a corridor with a lot of needs.”

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