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Pact divvies up millions for Novato Narrows and SMART transit center

Construction work continues on Highway 101, south of the Petaluma Boulevard South overpass, in Petaluma, on Wednesday, June 22, 2016. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

GUY KOVNER,

A notoriously congested 5-mile stretch of Highway 101 south of Petaluma may be widened in the near future, thanks to an agreement reached by North Bay transportation managers and elected officials over distribution of $18 million in federal funds.

The “united front,” as one manager put it, ended a short-lived feud over how the money — from an 11-year-old congressional earmark — should be divided between the Sonoma County Transportation Authority’s freeway widening project and a plan to remodel a San Rafael transit center, backed by the Golden Gate Bridge District and the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit authority. Three elected officials from Sonoma County and three from Marin County signed a letter to state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly on Tuesday urging him to award $15 million to widen 5 miles of highway through the Novato Narrows, a step that would likely give a green light to the $35 million project that could break ground by late next year.

The remaining $3.2 million should be awarded to SMART for improvements to the San Rafael transit center to be used by its commuter trains, the letter said. An identical letter was signed by five managers, including the heads of SMART, the bridge district and the SCTA.

That apportionment essentially reversed the funding allocation proposed in April by SMART’s general manager, Farhad Mansourian, and Golden Gate Bridge District chief Denis Mulligan seeking $12 million for the transit center, with the remainder going to the highway project.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a director of both SMART and the bridge district, cried foul last month, asserting that Mansourian and Mulligan had acted unilaterally and that easing freeway congestion should be the North Bay’s top priority.

In unusually blunt language, Rabbitt — who also is chairman of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority — said it would be akin to a “transportation crime” to spend the bulk of the federal funding on the San Rafael facility when “you have 100,000 people stuck in traffic on a daily basis.”

Six days after Mansourian and Mulligan made their funding request, Rabbitt sent his own letter to Kelly requesting $15 million for the freeway and $3.2 million for the transit center. While the transit center handles 9,000 riders per day, the highway transports 100,000 vehicles per day and “is clearly the project the public is clamoring to have completed,” his letter said.

Rabbitt expressed relief Wednesday in the wake of the letter to Kelly, signed by himself, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman Efren Carrillo and Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, a Metropolitan Transportation Commission member.

Also signing the letter were San Rafael Mayor Gary Phillips, Marin County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Kinsey, also an MTC commissioner, and Stephanie Moulton-Peters, chairwoman of the Transportation Authority of Marin.

“I’m glad we’re all on the same page,” Rabbitt said, but he remained critical of the move by Mansourian and Mulligan.

The once-disputed $18.2 million comes from a congressional earmark approved in 2005 to bring ferry service to Port Sonoma on the Petaluma River. The project failed to materialize and federal officials released the funds in March for new transportation projects that must be within 50 miles of the port.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, cheered the collaboration by local agencies, while also acknowledging the earlier dispute.

“Sonoma and Marin counties are coming to the state with a unified voice and we couldn’t be more grateful,” McGuire said.

McGuire said he will join Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Assembly members Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, and Bill Dodd, D-Napa, in sending a letter to Kelly formally requesting the funding proposed in Tuesday’s letters.

The state lawmakers also plan to meet within the next two weeks with Kelly and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty to lobby for the funding.

“I believe this is a win-win” for the two counties, McGuire said.

The Sonoma County Transportation Authority, SMART and the bridge district issued a press release Wednesday hailing the “consensus” over the funding plan.

“SMART has always supported cooperation and collaboration among all transportation partners,” Judy Arnold, chairwoman of SMART, a bridge district director, vice chairwoman of the Transportation Authority of Marin and a Marin supervisor, said in the release. “Together we can be more successful in attracting state and federal funds.”

Rabbitt said the funding agreement was reached at a meeting June 16 at the Marin Civic Center that included himself, Mackenzie, Mansourian, Mulligan, Moulton-Peters, Kinsey, Arnold and other transportation officials.

“We shouldn’t have to compete with one another,” he said.

Mackenzie said he called for the meeting because he sensed “there was somewhat of an impasse” over the earmark, and was concerned that another entity might apply for the money if the two counties were divided.

Mackenzie said he believed the “bulk of the money” should be spent widening the freeway.

Rabbitt said he understood why Mansourian and Mulligan made their bid for the money.

“Everyone thinks their project is the most important project in the world,” he said, noting that an agency head’s job is “to get every dollar you can.”

But he said the $12 million request for the transit center rankled him because SMART needs just $3.5 million to upgrade the facility and would be “hoarding” the balance for a future relocation of the center. “That’s what kind of set me off,” he said.

“For me, the narrows is by far and away the No. 1 need in the region,” Rabbitt said.

Mansourian disputed the idea there was conflict over the earmark funds. Following his and Mulligan’s April 27 funding request, Mansourian said he conferred separately with Mulligan and Suzanne Smith, SCTA executive director, and they reached a “collective decision” to seek $15 million for the freeway project.

That decision was endorsed at last week’s meeting in Marin, Mansourian said.

“It was important to us to come together as a united front,” he said.

Mansourian said he had no comment on Rabbitt’s letter. “That is past,” he said.

James Cameron, director of projects and programming for the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, said he expected a state decision on the earmark funding in September.

Sonoma County already has $15 million in transportation bond funds, along with $1 million from another earmark, set aside for widening the freeway about 5 miles from central Petaluma to a point just south of the Sonoma-Marin county line.

If the $15 million earmark funding comes through, Cameron said he is confident the county can come up with the remaining $4 million for the project.

Project plans are complete and ready for Caltrans review, paving the way to seek bids next year and start work by late 2017 or early 2018, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.