Santa Rosa shifts money to build new bridge over Highway 101 at Hearn Avenue

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Santa Rosa wants regional transportation officials to steer nearly $10 million in county sales tax money away from improving a major intersection on the city’s western edge and spend it on rebuilding a key bridge over Highway 101, a first-of-its-kind request as the city struggles to raise funds to build a bigger bridge.

The City Council last week voted to ask county transportation officials to reroute $9.5 million in regional sales tax revenue toward rebuilding the Hearn Avenue crossing over Highway 101 in south Santa Rosa, a $28 million project that would double the number of lanes on the bridge and include new turn lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks.

The money, which comes from a 20-year county sales tax voters approved in 2004, is currently set aside for converting the intersection of Highway 12 and Fulton Road into a full highway interchange — a $45 million project that has yet to begin. The decision to move the money will be up to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority, which is likely to consider the matter in September, said Suzanne Smith, the SCTA’s executive director. It’s the first time in the life of the sales tax that the SCTA will be faced with such a question, she said.

“It’s unique, but it’s not super shocking that we’re facing this situation,” Smith said.

She noted that there was no guarantee SCTA would assent to Santa Rosa’s request — the money will return to a general funding pool and wouldn’t be a direct transfer — but she added, “Hearn is clearly a priority for the city of Santa Rosa, and SCTA is eager to deliver critical Measure M projects.”

Santa Rosa has been unable to secure full funding for each of its three Measure M projects: the Hearn Avenue bridge, the Fulton Road interchange, and the $47.5 million dollar extension of Farmers Lane between Bennett Valley Road and Petaluma Hill Road along the city’s southeastern edge.

Moving the Fulton money toward Hearn — except for $500,000 that will be used for study — reflects the city’s desire to prioritize a bigger Hearn highway crossing without totally abandoning the west side project, Jason Nutt, the city’s transportation and public works director, said at last week’s council meeting.

“We feel comfortable that it doesn’t kill the project, it just pares it down to the next piece of work that would need to occur there,” Nutt said, referring to the Fulton Road interchange.

The move also preserves several million dollars in Measure M funding for the Farmers Lane extension. The decision to pick Farmers Lane over Fulton Road drew scrutiny from a member of the public, prompting Vice Mayor Chris Rogers to press Nutt on staff’s rationale.

Nutt said staff believes the Farmers Lane extension is critical for the city’s future. The extension, he said, will alleviate the prospect of “unacceptable” congestion in the area and provide another evacuation route in southeast Santa Rosa, relieving the strain on Highway 12 in case of a major disaster.

Previous efforts to secure grants for Hearn Avenue were unsuccessful, in part because Santa Rosa didn’t put up enough local dollars to draw down matching funds, Nutt said. Bolstering the city’s plans with extra cash could improve its chances, he said.

A city spokeswoman said the two-year construction process for Hearn Avenue could begin in January 2021 if Santa Rosa is able to secure full funding by the middle of 2020.

Caltrans is overseeing the project, as the new bridge would cross the highway. A Bay Area spokeswoman for the state agency, Lindsey Hart, expressed optimism the Hearn Avenue project could move forward.

“We’re excited to work on this project to provide some congestion relief and options for bicyclists and pedestrians,” Hart said.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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