Commuters to benefit in new year

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Happy new year, commuters — 2019 has the potential to offer some big developments that will ease North Bay traffic and shorten travel times around Petaluma.

Last year’s funding victories should translate into transportation projects along the Highway 101 corridor this year. The two biggest revenue boosters for local infrastructure were last year’s passage of Regional Measure 3, a bridge toll increase, and defeat of Proposition 6, which allowed the gas tax increase to stand.

Senate Bill 1, the 12-cent gas tax increase, combined with other vehicle fee increases, is the single biggest infrastructure funding mechanism in California in a generation. It is poised to pump $5 billion per year into a voter-approved lock box that can only be tapped for transportation projects.

Voters in November resoundingly defeated a cynical attempt to repeal the gas tax increase, and so SB1-funded projects will break ground all over the state next year. In Petaluma, this means the city will again receive about $1 million to pave some of the worst streets in the Bay Area.

More importantly, it means that an $85 million project to widen Highway 101 through Petaluma will get under way this coming summer. The three-year project from Corona Road to Lakeville Highway will include new sound walls and an overpass above a future extension of Rainier Avenue. It will link carpool lanes with those already built to the north and those under construction to the south.

Those new carpool lanes south of Petaluma, from the river to the Marin County line, should wrap up by the end of this year, easing the commute a bit at a key bottleneck. Just don’t try and drive in the carpool lane during commute time as a solo driver in an older electric car.

The white and green stickers that EV and hybrid car owners used to drive solo in the carpool lanes expired on Jan. 1, and only owners of clean vehicles purchased after Jan. 1, 2017 can apply for new red stickers to maintain the carpool lane benefit. This move should clear out the fast lane, making the commute easier for legitimate carpoolers.

Also as of Jan. 1, tolls on Bay Area bridges went up by $1, a move that was approved by voters in June’s RM3. The measure is due to fund all sorts of Bay Area transportation projects, including $100 million to redesign Highway 37 and $120 million to widen the very last piece of Highway 101 in the North Bay, from the county line to Novato.

Unfortunately, this funding source is still in question since the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association filed a lawsuit claiming the bridge toll increase was actually a tax and needed two-thirds voter approval. Thus, while drivers are still required to pay the higher bridge toll, officials can’t yet spend the money on anything useful for commuters like additional carpool lanes. For now, the bridge toll money will be held in an escrow account until the lawsuit is resolved.

The Highway 101 project in Marin County still has some design work left, which will continue through 2019 regardless of the law suit. We’re hopeful that the suit will be settled this year and ground can break in 2020.

Another agency that stands to benefit from the bridge toll funding is SMART. About $40 million in bridge toll funding is earmarked for the SMART extension to Windsor, which would increase ridership on the system that’s not even two years old.

SMART is due for another big year, helping to take cars off the road and ease the congestion for commuters. Construction will continue on the extension from San Rafael to Larkspur with service expected by the end of the year. With a terminus at the Larkspur Ferry terminal, SMART will be a more attractive option for North Bay commuters looking to connect to San Francisco-bound ferries.

In Petaluma, a second SMART station on the east side should move closer to reality this year. A developer of a site at Corona Road has proposed building a 150-space parking lot for a future SMART station, but a deal with SMART fell apart, and the two sides are headed to court to try and resolve the case. We hope that a swift resolution of the case this year leads to a long anticipated second station for Petaluma commuters.

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