State and local elected officials and regional transportation leaders attending a Petaluma forum last week voiced strong support for the recently enacted increase in the state gas tax, which they say is necessary to complete the Highway 101 widening project between Petaluma and Novato.

During the public forum on Feb. 23, the officials said that efforts to repeal the gas tax could significantly delay the completion of the highway widening project. State Republicans are gathering signatures to place a gas tax referendum on the November ballot. If a referendum is successful, Highway 101 widening will come to a halt, officials said.

“The gas tax revenue is helping to make this project happen,” said State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.

Dodd noted that, before last year’s 12-cent gas tax increase, the tax had not been raised since 1992 and was never indexed to the cost of inflation, so numerous projects across the state have gone unfinished, including the widening of Highway 101 from Novato to Windsor.

Officials hope to tap nearly $85 million in gas tax funds to complete the widening project through Petaluma from Corona Road to Lakeville Highway. The Sonoma County Transportation Authority is expected to hear from the state in May whether it will receive the funds. If funded, the $121 million project, including $35 million in county funds, could break ground next year and wrap up by 2022.

“We’ll continue working to make sure the North Bay gets a piece of the transportation funding pie,” Dodd said.

Completing the widening through Petaluma would leave the stretch of Highway 101 from the county line to Novato as the final piece of the project. If voters in June pass Regional Measure 3, an increase in Bay Area bridge tolls, officials hope to use $120 million of that revenue to complete the project.

“We will contribute an estimated 6 percent of the revenue from increased bridge tolls, but will get back between 10 and 11 percent of total revenues, including $120 million for the narrows and $100 million for Highway 37,” said State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

McGuire said the lack of investment in road repair statewide is a crisis with a multi-billion backlog of road expansion and maintenance projects. Rebuilding a road that has been improperly maintained costs eight times the amount of routine maintenance, so it’s a losing proposition to not maintain roads, he said.

Supervisor David Rabbitt said that there could be new county transportation revenue to add to the state and regional funding. County officials are considering placing an extension of Measure M, the quarter-cent sales tax for transportation projects, on the November ballot. The measure could be used to finish Highway 101 and fix city and county roads, he said.

“It’s important to continue being a self supporting county so we can get matching state and federal funds,” he said. “It’s important to leave our infrastructure in good shape for the next generation.”

The forum was co-sponsored by the Argus-Courier and the Press Democrat. Other panelists included Caltrans District Director Bijan Sartipi, Metropolitan Transportation Commission Chairman Jake Mackenzie, SCTA Executive Director Suzanne Smith and Transportation Authority of Marin Executive Director Dianne Steinhauser.