Sonoma County transportation officials believe they have identified a funding source to complete a widening project at the northern entrance to the Novato Narrows, a notorious section of Highway 101 south of Petaluma that enrages many motorists.
Carpool lanes would be opened on a 5-mile stretch of Highway 101 from the Petaluma River Bridge to just south of the Sonoma-Marin county line as part of the project, which faces a crucial test before the Metropolitan Transportation Commission next week.
While anything that eases bottlenecks through the Narrows would be welcomed by motorists, traffic congestion in the area will remain a problem for the foreseeable future due to stretches of the roadway remaining at four lanes from the county line to Novato. Transportation officials offered no timetable Wednesday for when those sections might be widened.
However, the completed widening project would at least offer motorists some relief. The project hinges on money to widen a 1.5-mile stretch of the highway south of the Petaluma River Bridge, between two widening projects that already are in the works.
Officials this week expressed cautious optimism that the latest project will move forward. If for some reason it doesn’t, carpool lanes installed on the nearly completed Petaluma River Bridge and on a not-yet-completed project near the county line will remain closed to traffic.
“I can only imagine people sitting in traffic, looking at that third lane and being totally frustrated,” south county Supervisor David Rabbitt said.
The MTC board will vote next week whether to pump $20 million into the latest widening project, which, when added to local transportation money, would cover the $37 million price tag to complete the work. State transportation officials would still need to sign off on the deal.
“I think we’re in the best shape we can be going into this,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.
The funding would complete widening of the highway between the new $130 million Petaluma River Bridge, set to debut in the spring, and a project that will raise and straighten the highway at the county line, near the crossing with San Antonio Creek, which often floods during heavy storms, sending water onto the highway.
Smith said the widening work along the entire 5-mile stretch could be completed by 2018.
However, the goal of adding carpool lanes along the length of Highway 101 through Sonoma and Marin counties remains a distant dream due to funding shortfalls.
In Sonoma County, plans to widen the highway from Corona Road to the Petaluma River Bridge, a stretch of roughly 3.5 miles, are on hold as officials seek to identify $85 million needed to complete the project.
In Marin County, projects to widen about 6 miles of the highway heading south, and 3 miles going north, through the Narrows also are nowhere near completion. Those projects carry price tags of $120 million.
Officials say the projects are hampered in part by declining revenues from state gas taxes — the result of people driving more fuel-efficient vehicles — which are a primary source of funding for state highway transportation projects.
Sonoma County officials said the money they are seeking to complete the widening project south of the Petaluma River Bridge includes state money that had been earmarked for other projects that failed to materialize.