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Sonoma County improved its transportation system over the past 14 years, with more lanes on Highway 101 and SMART’s new commuter rail service.

Much credit goes to local residents who recognized the needs and voted to pay for improvements.

There’s still work to be done to relieve traffic congestion — Highway 101 hasn’t been widened through Petaluma or the Novato Narrows, SMART doesn’t yet extend north of Santa Rosa, and Highway 37 has become both a major bottleneck and a warning beacon for the potentially destructive effects of rising sea levels.

And, come June 5, local voters have another chance to help themselves.

Regional Measure 3 authorizes toll increases on the seven state-owned bridges across the Bay Area — everything except the Golden Gate Bridge. Tolls would go up $1 in 2019, with subsequent $1 increases in 2022 and 2025.

The measure would raise $4.5 billion to help pay for road, rail, bus and ferry projects that are needed to reduce traffic congestion across the nine-county Bay Area. Here in the North Bay, we stand to receive $120 million to widen Highway 101 to three lanes in each direction between the Sonoma County line and Novato; $100 million to initiate improvements on Highway 37; and $40 million to extend the SMART train from Santa Rosa to Windsor and, possibly, Healdsburg. There’s also money to upgrade the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

This is an especially sweet deal for Sonoma County. Tolls paid by local drivers comprise 2 percent of tolls collected on the seven state-owned bridges, but 3 percent of the Regional Measure 3 revenue is earmarked for local transportation priorities. We can’t afford to pass on such a hefty return on our investment.

“We may not have a bridge, but we do have residents who pay those tolls,” said Suzanne Smith, the executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “We do have projects that are germane to the regional system.”

Sonoma County drivers travel elsewhere in the Bay Area and have paid tolls that contributed to transportation improvements funded by regional ballot measures in 1998 and 2004, a list that includes the new bridges in Benicia and Vallejo as well as the fourth bore of the Caldecott tunnel.

But this is the first time that Sonoma County voters will have a say on a regional toll measure — and the first time that revenue is promised for local transportation projects.

“So now we have a lot more at stake in this vote,” said Rohnert Park Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who is the chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

No one likes to pay more, but Mackenzie said MTC will consider a reduced rate to ease the bite for low-income commuters. With the proposed increases fully in effect in 2025, it would cost $8 to cross six of the affected spans, including the Richmond-San Rafael and Carquinez bridges, and $9 to cross the Bay Bridge during peak commute hours. By comparison, the Golden Gate Bridge toll is presently $7.75 and increases to $8 in July.

California is finally investing in repairing its deteriorating roads, bridges and highways. Regional Measure 3 would provide money to expand the capacity of the Bay Area’s transportation network so people can get from place to place more conveniently. It’s a vital investment in our future, and The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote.

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