Earmarks submitted by North Coast Congressional representatives could replace old buses with new cleaner ones, build transit facilities, improve roads and bring a Sonoma-Marin commuter train one step closer to operating.

Earmarks are an additional source of money that transportation officials say is crucial to transit-oriented projects.

"The false notion is that one source of money pays for everything," said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. "It just doesn't, especially in transportation. You have to scrabble together three or more funding sources to do any project."

That is where the so-called earmarks, often derided by critics as pork, come into play.

"Earmarks are a great thing. I don't think people who rail against them understand that they provide real money for real projects that are important to the community," Smith said.

The city of Santa Rosa is counting on earmarks to increase its fleet of hybrid buses as it phases out diesel-fueled buses.

"There is no such thing as bad money for worthwhile projects," said transit manager Bob Dunlavey, "and we believe the hybrid buses are environmentally worthwhile projects."

Congressional representatives Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, have requested $72.5 million for 30 transportation related projects.

The largest single request is $25 million for the third phase of seismic work on the Golden Gate Bridge. An additional $5 million is sought to improve the bridge district ferry facilities in Sausalito.

The smallest request, $374,000, is for the Sonoma County Transportation Agency to purchase electric vehicles and charging stations.

"Every dime is crucial at this point," said Smith. "There aren't a lot of funding opportunities out there, so the earmark process is one we want to take advantage of to get funding for key projects."

Woolsey and Thompson each submitted $2 million requests to buy new compressed natural gas buses for Sonoma County Transit.

Woolsey also submitted a $5 million request for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit agency to fund engineering and design work as the two-county rail agency begins the work required to begin construction.

Only a few of the requests will survive the Congressional process, however. Smith said it has been two or three years since a Sonoma County transportation project received any earmark money.

The Marin County Narrows Highway 101 project and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transportation agency have gotten earmark funding in the past. That helped widen Highway 101 from Santa Rosa to Windsor, and it has been used to replace buses for Santa Rosa's CityBus and Sonoma County Transit agencies.

"When it comes to building infrastructure projects, they are expensive, and you need millions and millions of dollars to deliver improvements to the traveling public," Smith said.

Santa Rosa CityBus has a fleet of 36 buses. Eight are hybrids that cost $600,000 each but get 50 percent better mileage and have 80 percent fewer emissions than standard diesel-fueled buses.

The transit agency has enough state and federal money to buy seven more. If the federal earmark is granted, it could buy another five.

You can reach Staff Writer

Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.