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Editorial: After 3 long decades, Hwy. 101 gets 3rd lane

On March 21, 2006, after decades of debate, three unsuccessful elections and a two-week rain delay, the Highway 101 widening project through Santa Rosa got started.

This phase — adding a third lane in each direction of the elevated segment of highway between Highway 12 and Steele Lane in Santa Rosa — was the first after local voters approved a sales tax for transportation and took about 30 months and cost more than $110 million, though it was completed about six months ahead of schedule.

The new lanes opened on Nov. 8, 2008, three days after voters in Sonoma and Marin counties approved a quarter-cent sales tax for SMART, the North Bay’s rail service.

Subsequent phases added new lanes to Windsor, then on to Petaluma and from the south end of Petaluma to the Marin County line.

Finally, after 14 years of overnight closures and jarring lane realignments, Caltrans announced completion of the final phase on July 19, a 3.3-mile segment through Petaluma.

Highway 101, the North Coast’s primary commute and commercial route, now has three lanes in each direction from Windsor to the Sonoma County line, a distance of about 30 miles. Meanwhile, work has started in northern Marin County to open the final two-lane bottleneck on Highway 101.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

A cursory review of news reporting finds that frustration with traffic congestion on Highway 101 in central Santa Rosa dates back at least 55 years. But the debate over how — and even whether — to ease traffic lasted another quarter-century. One side pressed for more lanes, the other argued that expanding the freeway would promote growth that would create more traffic.

The gridlock over funding highway expansion stretched almost 15 more years.

The first county sales tax measure to widen the highway went on the ballot in 1990 and got 46% of the vote. In 1998, support increased to 47.6%. In 2000, it grew to 58.5% on a highway measure and 60.3% on a separate rail measure. But by then the rules had changed: a two-thirds majority was required for special purpose local taxes.

On the fourth try, in November 2004, voters approved Measure M, a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, including widening Highway 101, with 67.2% — a margin of barely 1,0000 votes out of more than 209,000 ballots cast.

By then, some work had been completed between Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, using alternative funding.

Even so, the tax was a partial solution, a source of matching funds to leverage the big dollars needed for a wider, safer highway. Measure M generated about $170 million for Highway 101, but the “three lanes all the way” widening project ultimately cost more than $1 billion.

Dozens of past and present elected officials at the local, state and federal level, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority and advocacy groups deserve credit for working cooperatively to secure the funding needed to finish the job.

The last piece of the puzzle was SB 1, an increase in the gas tax enacted by state legislators in 2017 and upheld by 56% of California voters in a referendum the following year. By then, Sonoma County voters understood they were getting a smoother ride for their tax dollars, and more than 70% rejected the referendum.

Traffic still backs up on Highway 101 when people are headed to and from work, and some drivers won’t be satisfied unless the rush-hour carpool restrictions are eliminated. It wasn’t a smooth ride, and the Marin bottleneck won’t be gone for four years, but one of Sonoma County’s largest and most consequential public works projects is finally complete.

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