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Highway help on horizon

Anyone who has driven on Highway 101 through Marin and Sonoma counties in the past two decades will have noticed two things: The traffic has become a lot worse, especially in key bottlenecks; and the pace of construction to widen the freeway has slowed to a crawl resembling the afternoon commute through The Narrows.

Foreseeing the potential for growth in the North Bay, transportation officials in 2000 launched a $1 billion effort to expand capacity on Highway 101, the region’s main thoroughfare, by adding a carpool lane from Novato to Windsor.

For whatever the reason, the powers that be decided to start in Santa Rosa, widening the freeway north to Windsor and south to Cotati. By the time the project reached the northern fringe of Petaluma at Old Redwood Highway, the nation was in a recession and transportation funding at the federal, state and county level had all but dried up.

The result of these decisions has been a massive bottleneck during key commute times on Highway 101 through Petaluma all the way to Novato, the notorious Sonoma-Marin Narrows.

State and federal transportation funding stopped flowing mostly because gasoline taxes that pay for infrastructure projects had not been raised in decades. Local funding, in the form of the Measure M sales tax that voters passed in 2004 for transportation funding, has mostly been depleted.

During this bleak era for transportation funding, officials did manage to creatively cobble together money for several piecemeal projects that, in total, will widen Highway 101 from the Petaluma River bridge to the county line once construction wraps up in 2019.

But the biggest gaps, which have persisted to this day, are through Petaluma from Corona Road to Highway 116 and from the county line to northern Novato.

Until recently, it was anyone’s guess as to when funding would be available to finally complete the project. But a confluence of potential new transportation funding sources could finally help get this project across the finish line within five years, and voters could have a say in each.

At the state level, lawmakers this year passed a landmark bill to raise the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and increase vehicle registration fees. The measure is expected to raise $52 billion for transportation projects in 10 years. Local officials hope to tap this source, known as SB1, for $70 million to widen Highway 101 through Petaluma. The segment would also provide an underpass to facilitate the Rainier Avenue crosstown connector.

A southern California Republican lawmaker has called for a ballot measure to repeal the gas tax, meaning that voters next year could decide whether to keep this valuable source of transportation funding or scrap it and go back to the dark ages of infrastructure shortfalls.

At the regional level, voters in the nine Bay Area counties could be asked next year to raise tolls on the state-owned bridges, not including the Golden Gate, which is run by a special district. A $3 bridge toll increase would raise $380 million annually for Bay Area projects. Included in the spending plan is $125 million to widen Highway 101 from the county line to Novato.

Locally, Sonoma County Transportation Authority officials plan to ask voters to extend Measure M on the 2018 ballot. The local sales tax revenue has been leveraged six to one to attract regional, state and federal funding, and it is the reason why the highway project has advanced as far as it has so far. With the project nearly complete, much of the money in an extended Measure M would go to the county and cities to repair beleaguered street networks.

Next year looks to be promising for transportation funding, but it will take a concerted campaign to succeed at the ballot. Unless you like sitting in traffic on Highway 101, staring at the new cars for sale at the Petaluma Auto Mall, then it is important to stay engaged and support the ballot measures that will lead to more funding to complete the widening project.