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Widening Highway 101

State legislators, transportation officials and others discuss the process of widening Highway 101 through Petaluma and to the Marin County line. Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building, 1094 Petaluma Blvd. S., beginning at 6:30 p.m.

There’s no disputing that Sonoma County has made great progress over the past 12 years or so in widening Highway 101 to six lanes from Petaluma to Windsor and expanding public transit opportunities, particularly with the start of SMART commuter rail service six months ago.

But there’s one major piece of the transportation puzzle that still needs to be put in place: Widening the last three miles of Highway 101 from Petaluma through the Novato Narrows to Marin County. This remains the most serious bottleneck in the region as anyone who has to use it during commute hours will tell you.

But there is hope on the horizon. Last year, the state Legislature and governor agreed to bolster the state’s languishing gas tax funds by boosting the tax 12 cents a gallon and by 20 cents for diesel fuel as of Jan. 1. The taxes are expected to generate roughly $5.4 billion a year for road repair and transit programs statewide. That could include some of the roughly $170 million needed to complete that last stretch of Highway 101 from Petaluma to Novato. But those funds could be in jeopardy given a referendum campaign now in the works to ask voters to repeal the gas tax increase.

Meanwhile, another funding measure is in the works. In June, Bay Area voters will be asked to decide on Regional Measure 3, which would raise roughly $4.5 billion to pay for a slate of highway and transit improvements in the region.

The measure calls for raising tolls on Bay Area state-owned toll bridges by $3, beginning with a $1 increase on Jan. 1, 2019, followed by another $1 increase in January 2022 and another $1 increase in January 2025.

The measure includes $120 million for the Novato Narrows project in addition to $100 million for Highway 37 improvements and $40 million for extending SMART to Windsor and Healdsburg. In all, $580 million of those funds would be earmarked for projects in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County also will be looking at possibly renewing Measure M, a quarter-cent sales tax measure for transportation improvements that was approved by voters in 2004 but is due to expire in 2024. Sonoma County has been able to use this dedicated source of local revenue as leverage to obtain matching state and federal funds to widen Highway 101 and do other projects.

The plan for widening Highway 101 is clear, but the pathway to getting it done is not. When the work will be completed will largely be in the hands of voters in elections in June and September.

Toward that end, readers are invited to a public forum tonight focused on the Highway 101 expansion. Participating in this conversation will be state Sens. Bill Dodd and Mike McGuire, Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, Metropolitan Transportation Committee Chairman Jake Mackenzie, Sonoma County Transportation Authority Executive Director Suzanne Smith, Diane Steinhauser, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin and Bijan Sartipi, District 4 director of Caltrans. Moderating the panel will be Press Democrat Editorial Director Paul Gullixson and John Burns, publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier and Sonoma Index-Tribune.

This is the second in a series of town hall-type discussions sponsored by the newspapers of Sonoma Media Investments. A previous forum in May focused on the long-term solutions for fixing flood-prone Highway 37. As with that earlier forum in Sonoma, attendees will be invited to pose questions to the panelists.

The forum today will be held at the Petaluma Veterans Memorial Building at 1094 Petaluma Blvd. South, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Join us.

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