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'The Springs' delighted by coming improvements along Highway 12


Long-planned improvement projects along Highway 12 in Sonoma Valley are edging forward, delighting residents and business owners in Agua Caliente, Fetters Hot Springs, El Verano and Boyes Hot Springs.

The upgrades include lane widening, lighting, sidewalks and bike lanes along the busy traffic and pedestrian corridor just north of Sonoma.

"Finally, finally," said Gina Cuclis, a Boyes Hot Springs resident and former county supervisorial candidate who has been active since the early 1990s in efforts to improve the area's infrastructure.

Many of the improvements, set to begin this year, are part of a highway overhaul that has been on the drawing board for decades and has been built piecemeal over the years, starting on the northern edge of Sonoma.

Much of the work yet to be done was nearly derailed when the state eliminated redevelopment agencies in 2012, freezing the main source of local funding for the project.

"It was very frustrating with nothing going on," Cuclis said. "The fact that it is moving along is very satisfying."

One project would widen the highway by adding a third lane, replace some of the dozens of trees that were removed this month and install benches, bicycle lanes and streetlights.

It is to stretch for about a mile and is expected to cost about $5 million in former redevelopment funds derived from property tax receipts.

Almost simultaneously, another county project is forging ahead. It would put in additional improvements and address public transportation needs along the highway corridor. It is funded initially by a $450,000 grant from the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

A planning consultant is expected to be hired this spring to work with county officials and area residents to brainstorm and sketch out the changes, said First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who sought the planning grant.

"I think of this as how to build a community," said Gorin. "What are all the different pieces that should be considered to make this wonderful community even better and to provide opportunities for economic development."

Some proposals for the area, where assorted shops and some apartment buildings crowd the two-lane road, were fashioned by community groups as far back as the 1980s and 1990s, but went nowhere.

"We're going to dust off those visions and see if there is anything that we can carry forward," Gorin said.

Sidewalks have long been considered a priority for the neighborhoods often referred to collectively as The Springs, where about 11,000 people live. Residents, children among them, often are seen walking or bicycling on the highway shoulders as they travel to and from schools, shopping trips and home.

"The sidewalks are going to be a huge plus for us," said Cristin Lawrence, executive director of Sonoma Valley Teen Services. "I've watched for years as our teens leave and go right up the highway. So it's going to do my heart a lot of good."

Not far away, across the highway, Avelina Hernandez, owner of Aviel Hair Studio, also welcomed the prospect of improvements.

"It will be busy when they're doing the work, but we're ready for it, that's the price that we have to pay," she said.

"It's going to make the whole Highway 12 look better," Hernandez said. "And it will be just wonderful to have sidewalks on this side of town. I see a lot of kids and they have to be walking right on Highway 12 where there is no safety for them."

An earlier stage of the redevelopment-funded project was completed in 2010, covering a stretch of Highway 12 closer to Sonoma.

Construction bids for the second phase should go out in March, said Tom O'Kane, the county's deputy director of road maintenance and engineering.

He said the work will likely take several years.

"It's probably going to be two construction seasons but that's not bad," O'Kane said. "It'll be really a pretty project once it's finished. And particularly for pedestrian safety — it's a wonder no one's been hit out there."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.