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North Bay transportation projects receive new scrutiny

Two long-envisioned North Bay transportation projects are under renewed scrutiny as regional planners put together a new $200 billion spending plan.

The two projects — widening the Novato Narrows and Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit extensions to Cloverdale and Larkspur — are in the current regional plan, a listing that is necessary to be eligible for state and federal funds.

But they are now being subjected to a fresh level of analysis as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission crafts a new regional plan, scheduled to be adopted in mid 2013 and take effect in 2015.

"The commission will want to take a closer look at both of these projects and look not only at cost-benefit, but at the history," MTC spokesman John Goodwin said. "In each case there is significant support, but it would be vastly presumptuous to declare any likely outcome."

MTC's ranking now includes a cost-benefit ratio based on construction cost and a reduction in travel times.

Additionally, the MTC is also considering the impact on greenhouse gases, fossil fuel use, reducing traffic congestion, improving safety, serving housing needs and the availability of transit for low-income residents.

Unfortunately, that analysis benefits projects in the more heavily-populated areas of Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose to the detriment of Sonoma County, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

"Just because we are not an urban, densely-populated area, it doesn't mean we don't have transportation needs," Smith said.

In one MTC analysis, the SMART extensions, estimated to cost $283 million, have a poor cost-benefit ratio compared to road and other transit projects, but have environmental benefits and support from voters who approved a quarter-cent sales tax.

For the widening of the Narrows between Petaluma and Novato, which will cost $300 million to complete, the cost-benefit ratio is acceptable. However, the widening will only add vehicles to Highway 101, and increase emissions, greenhouse gases and other negative environmental impacts, according to the MTC evaluation.

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