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Fate of Highway 37 funds, Russian River bridge rehabilitation in limbo in federal infrastructure package

Sonoma County may be in line for $22.6 million in federal infrastructure funding that would help pay for widening a portion of traffic-clogged Highway 37 and rehabilitate an aging railroad bridge on the Russian River at Healdsburg.

The funding is not a done deal in the wake of Senate approval Tuesday of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes $110 billion for roads and bridges and came about a month after House ratification of the $547 billion transportation-focused Invest in America Act.

Anticipating the two bills would go through reconciliation by House and Senate negotiators, David Rabbitt, a Sonoma County supervisor and SMART board chairman, expects to get $13.6 million for bridge reinforcement work necessary for extending commuter rail service to Healdsburg.

“Infrastructure should be the least partisan of all issues,” he said. “Every member (of Congress) benefits from it.”

Asked if he would bet $100 on the funding, Rabbitt said, “Yeah, I think I would.”

“Heck ya,” said Suzanne Smith, Sonoma County Transportation Authority executive director, regarding the same hypothetical wager.

The $7 million Resilient State Route 37 Corridor project would cover engineering work on high-occupancy vehicle lanes in both directions on Highway 37 from Sonoma Raceway to Mare Island.

“This is a critical piece of infrastructure for all of the North Bay, and I think we’ve made a good case for it,” Smith said.

Another potential Sonoma County infrastructure-funded project is a $2 million safety improvement of the Highway 116/West Cotati Avenue intersection in Cotati plagued by serious collisions.

The uncertainty relates to the strategy Reps. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, used to tuck 10 projects — totaling $36.4 million — into the House bill as “member-designated projects,” formerly known as earmarks.

Huffman named five projects in Sonoma, Marin and Del Norte counties in his North Coast district, while Thompson backed six projects in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Solano and Contra Costa counties in his district.

Both congressmen named the Highway 37 widening project.

One of Thompson’s earmarks would provide $2.28 million for chip sealing 55 miles of county roads rated in poor condition in Lakeport, Kelseyville, Cobb Mountain and Hidden Valley.

Huffman’s earmarks included $500,000 for improvements to an overlook at the end of Mouth of Smith River Road in the town of Smith River, a steelhead and Chinook salmon fishing mecca in Del Norte County.

But it’s unclear if any earmarks will remain in the final infrastructure measure.

“That’s the $3.5 trillion question,” Thompson said. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen nor is anyone else. What might come to Sonoma County is still to be determined.”

In the “old days,” he said, bills from the House and Senate went to a conference committee that resolved the matter of earmarks.

“I’ve gotten a lot of earmarks (approved),” Thompson said.

But Huffman said there may be no reconciliation because the House earmarks were “stripped out” of the Senate bill and its backers “are now saying take it or leave it.”

“It puts us in a very uncomfortable place,” he said. “We’re trying to get them back in.”

House members may be able to restore the earmarks through the $3.5 trillion budget resolution tied to the infrastructure bill, Huffman said.

Rabbitt, a county supervisor since 2011, said “a lot of good things have been done in our area through earmarks.”

He and Smith said $22.6 million from the earmarks would be just the start of Sonoma County’s windfall from the federal infrastructure program, deemed a major political win for President Joe Biden.

“The bill will bring tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars over the next several years,” Smith said. “It’s a very important piece of legislation for us.”

Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior Democratic senator, said in a news release her chamber’s bill was “the greatest investment in infrastructure I’ve had the privilege of voting for in the Senate.”

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will “help us rebuild our electrical grid with an eye on climate change, focusing on renewable energy sources and expanding the use of microgrids to reduce shut-offs during dangerous wildfire conditions,” she said.

Feinstein cited several wildfire-related authorizations: $3.3 billion for wildfire risk reduction, including hazardous fuels mitigation and controlled burns; $5 billion for utilities and grid operators to bury power lines; $2 billion for ecological restoration to remove wildfire fuel on private and public lands and $3.5 billion for fireproofing homes.

The Senate bill allocated $875 million for dam safety, $800 million for hydropower dam retrofits and upgrades and $890 million for removing unneeded dams and restoring fish runs on rivers, with Feinstein noting that many of the dams eligible for this funding are in California.

Relicensing a small hydropower project in Mendocino County’s Potter Valley involves the controversial issue of removing Scott Dam and restoring salmon and steelhead spawning habitat.

The Senate bill’s largest authorization, by broad topic, was $110 billion for roads and bridges, along with:

  • $73 billion — Power infrastructure, including electric grid improvements
  • $66 billion — Passenger and freight rail
  • $65 billion — High speed internet access
  • $55 billion — Clean drinking water
  • $39 billion — Public transit
  • $25 billion — Airports
  • $21 billion — Environmental remediation
  • $17 billion — Ports and waterways
  • $11 billion —Transportation safety
  • $7.5 billion — Electric vehicle charging stations

Adam Russell, a Feinstein spokesman, said the office could not identify any “specific projects or dollar amounts” coming to California because those were based on each program’s fund distribution formula.

Thompson and 50 other House Democrats signed an Aug, 6 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and three other party leaders urging them to ensure earmarked projects are included in the final bipartisan bill.

“We adamantly believe that elected representatives — working with their communities — know the specific needs of their districts far better than others in Washington, D.C.,” the letter said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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