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County eyes road upgrades as Measure DD passes

For 2020 election results, go here.

Voters this month agreed to lock in tens of millions of local dollars each year for road improvements and upgrades to Sonoma County’s bus network and bicycle and pedestrian paths, ensuring transportation officials have dedicated funds for infrastructure projects into 2045.

In an countywide election that saw near-record turnout, Measure DD comfortably passed with 71% support, 4 points clear of the two-thirds majority it needed for approval. The extension of an existing quarter-cent sales tax won’t kick in until spring of 2025, but allows the county and its nine cities to start initial planning and grant work on the next generation of road and transportation projects.

While Measure DD, also known as the Go Sonoma Act, carries forward similar objectives as Measure M, the 20-year tax that voters narrowly passed in 2004, it has a reconfigured spending plan for the projected $26 million in yearly revenue. No major projects were included in the renewal measure after the initial tax allocated 40% of its annual funds to widening Highway 101 from the Marin County line north to Windsor.

The new measure puts more emphasis on smaller upgrades, including a greater share of funding for local roads, transit, bike and pedestrian projects.

“Throughout the cities and county, there are a lot of under-paved roads. There are a lot of roads that have been neglected in communities for a long time, and definitely need to be improved,” said Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey, vice chair of Sonoma County’s Transportation Authority. “The big difference is that this measure — the Go Sonoma Act — it has a heightened focus on local roads and projects that are going to help the smaller communities. That’s what I’m hoping to see.”

The last part of the $1.2 billion Highway 101 expansion, the $738 million widening between Petaluma and Novato, used the local tax to leverage outside funds at a rate of 5-to-1, according to the transportation authority. The project is still not finished, but is closing in on its last three years. The Sonoma section is fully funded and scheduled to be done by the end of 2022, and a $40 million state grant for the Marin portion is expected to be finalized next week puts it on track for completion by the end of 2023 or early 2024.

The absence of a marquee project led to concerns among county transportation officials that voters may not have an appetite for extending the tax roughly four years before the current measure expires. The proposal also overcame an organized opposition campaign, which is often enough to sink special taxes needing a supermajority.

So it was a relief and some comfort to supporters to see Measure DD pass with even greater support than its precursor with 67.2% of the vote in 2004.

“It was much more than a pleasant surprise. The fact that it passed is absolutely fantastic,” said James Cameron, SCTA’s director of projects and programming. “It gives the SCTA a lot of pride that we feel like we’ve achieved the trust of those voters and have proven we can deliver on those promises to voters.”

The updated spending plan commits 12% of annual revenue — more than triple the prior measure — to bicycle and pedestrian projects. The local bicycle community is optimistic that the funds, at more than $3 million a year, will be used to extend pathways and improve safety with more bicycle-specific protected lanes in and between the county’s cities.

“We’ve seen with COVID just a huge deluge of people riding bikes. So I think we’re seeing that first step that people can change how they get around,” said Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition. “More and more state requirements for funding require jurisdictions to … totally change how cities and counties measure traffic, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and just reduce congestion with the numbers of cars on the road. So just numerous trends are kind of feeding into that, and that’s something I’m feeling very positive and hopeful about.”

About $17 million annually will be split between the county and its nine cities for local roads. The new measure also more than doubles the amount of money dedicated to the county’s three bus systems, which are set to receive up to about $6 million per year. Talks are occurring across the Bay Area about consolidating its more than 25 public transit agencies, and Harvey said it is his goal to see the funds for buses lead the way toward a more reliable, equitable and better integrated countywide public transit network.

“The largest-scale project that this county needs is a viable, working public transit system that people can choose rather than getting in cars. That’s the big project,” Harvey said of Measure DD. “We should expand for more fare-free routes, because it inspires people to take the bus. If the goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and traffic, increasing the use of public transit is the best way to address both those issues.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

For 2020 election results, go here.

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