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Highway funding on horizon

There is good news and bad news for anyone who has ever been stuck in traffic in the four lane stretch of Highway 101 through Petaluma. Regional transportation officials said at a town hall event in Petaluma recently that they have a funding plan to widen the freeway to six lanes in this section known as The Narrows.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the plan hinges on voter approval, and voters have not been very generous lately when it comes to approving new sources of revenue, even for infrastructure projects.

The Highway 101 widening project began nearly two decades ago, and transportation officials have leveraged funds for the local Measure M quarter-cent sales tax to procure millions in state and federal funding to expand the freeway from the north end of Petaluma to Windsor.

But around six years ago, just as construction reached Petaluma, federal, state and local transportation funding began to dry up. Creative funding solutions were identified to squeeze out a few miles of carpool lanes from the Petaluma River bridge to the Sonoma-Marin county line, but two major bottlenecks — through the heart of Petaluma and south to Novato — lingered without any funding on the horizon. Until now.

The state Legislature’s passage last year of SB1, the first gas tax increase in more than 20 years, has finally freed up revenue to fix the state’s crumbling roads and highways. Local officials should know in May whether Sonoma County is in line for $85 million in new gas tax funds to finally close one of those Highway 101 gaps from Corona Road to Lakeville Highway. But there’s a catch.

Even if the money is awarded in May, it could be taken away in November. California Republican leaders have launched a campaign to place a repeal of the gas tax increase on the November ballot. It’s a cynical move more likely designed to drive conservative voters to the polls, but it could end up scuttling our best hope to fix the highway. The repeal measure, if it makes the November ballot, must be defeated.

The fate of the section of highway from the county line to Novato could be determined even sooner. Voters in the nine Bay Area counties will decide in June on a measure that would raise regional bridge tolls by $3. Proceeds from this measure are designated to go towards improving so-called congested corridors, of which The Narrows certainly qualifies. If voters pass this measure, $120 million will come our way to complete this last piece.

We could be headed into a new golden era for transportation funding after years of inaction. Besides the new state and regional funding, and a longer shot but still possible federal transportation bill, we could also be given the opportunity to renew our local revenue stream, the workhorse Measure M, at the ballot this November. An extension of Measure M at the same level would not increase current sales tax rates.

With outside funding to complete Highway 101 on the horizon, funds from a renewed Measure M could be shifted to fixing more of the county roads and city streets that also have been neglected.

This is a pivotal year for transportation funding, and as long as voters remain focused on a huge priority that has long been ignored, we will have the funds to accomplish our goals by the end of the year.