Petaluma Highway 101 bottleneck to get worse before getting better

  • Traffic speeds over the Petaluma Boulevard South Interchange bridge on Monday, April 1, 2013. The bridge will under go renovations with the northbound State Route 116 bridge being replaced and the southbound bridge widened. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

The historically congested stretch of Highway 101 south of Petaluma is primed for work that eventually will widen the corridor and provide relief for what is known as the Novato Narrows bottleneck.

But don't get too excited, drivers.

The $120 million project, which really is two projects at once, will take three years and include temporary lane closures that at times will squeeze traffic to one lane in each direction.

And even when construction is done, the carpool lanes won't exist. Funding for them isn't yet available.

Still, at a groundbreaking ceremony Monday in Petaluma, local officials and transportation experts said starting work on the two projects is a huge step forward in the long-term widening of 101 from Windsor to Novato.

"What a momentous occasion," said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the Petaluma area. The projects mean a safer highway, better transportation infrastructure and jobs, he said.

Overall, work on the 17-mile Marin-Sonoma Narrows, which Caltrans defines as Cotati to Highway 37 in Novato, is expected to cost $700 million, Caltrans estimates. Thus far, the northernmost and southernmost sections have been completed, leaving the thorny center stretch to be dealt with.

"It may be April Fools', but it's no joke that the project is commencing," said Sonoma County Transportation Authority Executive Director Suzanne Smith. "This has been more than a decade in the making."

This two-projects-in-one segment includes a $77 million contract for a new Petaluma Boulevard South interchange, new frontage roads and replacement of the dual Petaluma River bridges with one, six-lane bridge to accommodate future carpool lanes.

The nine-mile section between Novato and Petaluma, commonly referred to as the narrows, will be converted from expressway to freeway status by closing uncontrolled access. Wider frontage roads will feature bicycle access.

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