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Officials eye funding for Highway 101 widening

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After years of little activity and massive funding shortfalls, transportation officials tasked with widening Highway 101 through Sonoma and Marin counties are now eying multiple potential sources of cash to complete the project and close key traffic bottlenecks, including through Petaluma, on the North Bay’s main freeway.

A confluence of state, regional and county sources could provide the funding to finish the project nearly two decades in the making, although it is becoming increasingly likely that voters will have a say in each of these measures at the ballot next year.

“I can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “There is a lot of interest in finishing work on this corridor. We’re ready to go.”

Recognizing the potential for growth in the North Bay, transportation officials began in 2000 to add a carpool lane to Highway 101 from Novato to Windsor, a project that has so far widened the freeway to six lanes from just north of Petaluma through central Windsor.

An infusion of local dollars from the 2004 passage of the countywide Measure M sales tax helped spur along the project, providing matching funds that have attracted six times the amount of state and federal funding. But in the past five years, funding at all levels mostly dried up, leaving a gap in carpool lanes through Petaluma into Novato, the notorious Sonoma-Marin Narrows.

Still, transportation officials slowly chipped away at that gap, finding piecemeal funding sources to widen the Petaluma River bridge, add carpool lanes at the county line, and widen a short stretch of highway in between those two projects. That work is expected to wrap up by 2019, but the most visible stretches of untouched highway — between Corona Road and Highway 116 in Petaluma, and from the county line to Novato — have, until now, remained unfunded.

With a flurry of transportation funding packages proposed recently, Sonoma County officials have a plan that they are hopeful will complete the freeway project within the next five years.

“We’re at the tail end of the game,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “We want to get over the finish line, but we don’t want to fumble the ball.”

The most promising funding source comes from an increase in the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees, a piece of legislation passed earlier this year known as SB1. Included in the measure, which is expected to raise $52 billion in ten years, is money for so-called congested corridors. County officials believe the carpool lane gap through Petaluma, where traffic often slows to a crawl as three lanes become two, has a good chance to compete for those funds.

“The funds would allow SCTA, in partnership with Caltrans, to open all planned Highway 101 carpool lanes in Sonoma County by the end of 2022,” Smith said. “SB1 legislation specifically calls out the Highway 101 corridor in Sonoma and Marin as an example of multi-modal approaches to relieving congestion.”

The agency will likely submit an application seeking $70 million to complete the $90 million project, and word about the award is expected by mid-May. The rest of the funds would come from Measure M, and $7 million from Petaluma’s former redevelopment agency.

“We’ve been led to believe that we are high up on the list for those funds,” said Petaluma City Councilwoman Kathy Miller, an SCTA representative. “We’re shovel-ready. We’re hopeful.”

Rabbitt said officials are looking to extend Measure M, and potentially raising it from a quarter-cent to half-cent sales tax, on the ballot in 2018. With Highway 101 mostly complete, an extension of Measure M would help fund local street repairs, he said.

But voters may be asked to also weigh in on the gas tax increase in 2018. A Southern California Republican lawmaker is gathering signatures to place a repeal of the gas tax on the ballot, essentially giving voters a referendum on raising their gas tax to pay for transportation projects.

Also likely on the 2018 ballot in the nine Bay Area counties will be a proposal to raise tolls on state-owned bridges — all bridges except the Golden Gate, which is run by a special district — by up to $3. The proposed spending plan of this measure includes $125 million to complete the Highway 101 widening south of Petaluma to Novato.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that we can finish this thing once and for all,” Rabbitt said.

In addition to potentially widening the highway through Petaluma, SB1 could also spur several other local projects. The highway widening project includes new sound walls, which would help secure homes along the freeway that were damaged last year in a fire that torched a row of eucalyptus trees that offered some privacy.

It would also add an undercrossing for a future extension of Rainier Avenue, a long planned crosstown connector. And SB1 includes money for local jurisdictions to repair roads. Petaluma stands to receive $1.7 million in the first year and $2.4 million in the second year to fix city streets that are some of the worst in the Bay Area.

On top of the state, regional and county transportation funding sources, President Trump has mentioned wanting a $1 trillion federal transportation bill, although he has yet to detail a proposal eight months into his administration.

“I wouldn’t hold my breath on that,” Smith said.

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