WatchSonoma Watch

Solution to Highway 101′s biggest bottleneck at least seven years away


On the day the new Graton Resort & Casino opened last week, northbound traffic on Highway 101 backed up from Rohnert Park all the way to Novato. It took drivers an hour to travel just 22 miles.

The casino is expected to add up to 10,000 vehicles per day to the already overburdened artery, highlighting the need to complete a long-planned Highway 101 overhaul, widening bridges, reconfiguring interchanges, and other improvements.

Traffic on the Novato Narrows in 2002. (PD File)

Traffic on the Novato Narrows in 2002. (PD File)

“A traffic generator like the casino makes this project even more important,” said Dianne Steinhauser, executive director of the Transportation Authority of Marin. “It emphasizes the need to do it.”

Much of that work will be completed by 2017.

But even after all the improvements, the worst bottleneck in the area will remain: the freeway will still narrow from four lanes in Marin County down to two lanes from north of Novato to Petaluma. A lack of funding will leave that 10-mile gap in carpool lanes for at least seven more years, transportation officials say, and frustrate commuters who battle heavy daily traffic between Sonoma and Marin counties.

Thirteen years after embarking on the project to improve Highway 101 from Highway 37 in Novato to Windsor River Road — a nearly 40-mile stretch — construction crews are working on the last section between Petaluma and northern Novato known as “The Narrows.”

The projects underway include improving all four interchanges in Petaluma, widening the overpass at Redwood Landfill, adding frontage roads through The Narrows, closing off unsafe highway access points, and widening the bridges over the Petaluma River and Highway 116. All of the work will be completed by 2016.

A future project to realign the freeway and build a new bridge over San Antonio Creek at the county line is fully funded and will break ground in 2015 with a two-year timeline.

When all the work is complete, the freeway will be safer and more modern, but no wider than it is today. Funding for the last piece — a carpool lane in each direction from northern Novato to Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma — is still $250 million short, and officials don’t know when it will come, or even who will pay.

“Where’s the money going to come from? We don’t know the answer to that yet,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “If someone wrote me a check tomorrow, we could have the whole thing done in four years. Optimistically, we could see funding in two to four years.”

The six miles of unfunded Sonoma County carpool lanes are estimated to cost $125 million. Marin County’s four-mile gap is $110 million short.

The Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria, which owns the casino, will pay $2 million over the next 10 years for transportation infrastructure to offset the increased traffic from the gambling palace.

So far, the Sonoma County side of the project has been funded by Measure M, the 20-year sales tax measure voters approved in 2004, and the state and federal money that it has leveraged. But the Measure M fund is largely depleted. Officials borrowed most of the money up front, and the rest of the expected revenue will go toward servicing the debt, Smith said.

Regional transportation planners must now get creative to make up the funding gap.

Extending Measure M at this point is not an attractive option, Smith said, because the cost of borrowing that far ahead is expensive.

Marin County’s Measure A sales tax is not supporting the Narrows project, Steinhauser said. Those funds were spent on Highway 101 widening around San Rafael.

Marin is widening its side of the freeway incrementally, including in two spots that should be ready early next year — an additional southbound lane from Novato Creek to Franklin Avenue and a northbound lane from Atherton Avenue to just south of Redwood Landfill.

Agencies are looking for state and federal funding, but Smith doesn’t expect money from Sacramento or Washington in the near future.

“In terms of state and federal funds, we don’t expect to see a lot of that on the horizon,” she said.

A Congressional ban on earmarks makes federal funding for specific projects hard to come by, Steinhauser said.

In the meantime, officials are preparing the highway for the final 12-foot wide strip of asphalt — whenever funds become available — and preparing drivers to expect bottlenecks until at least 2020.

“We made a choice to do the safety improvements first,” Steinhauser said. “While we are able to make the roadway safer, we are not able to widen the road all the way at this time. That’s going to be frustrating for drivers.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.

9 Responses to “Solution to Highway 101′s biggest bottleneck at least seven years away”

  1. The Hammer says:

    They just can’t figure out how to efficiently spend our money. Instead of using available funds to fix the road problems they are building unnecessary sound walls on the Windsor freeway. Now please explain to me how these walls will improve the roads?

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  2. Paulo says:

    If Highway 101 was a private interprize, what do you think would happen to the bureaucrats in charge if they told the Board of Directors they would have the bottleneck solved in 2017?

    They would be picking up their termination checks and cleaning out their desks immediately.

    Why do we the taxpayers have to put up with this incompetency in the management our highway and road system? Because there is no bottom line in government and the bureaucrats do as they please.

    Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  3. James Bennett says:

    Nobody is stupid enough to impose all the crap we are being subjected to.

    It’s not a stupid thing.

    It’s worse.

    Being stupid is innocent.

    It’s a loyalty thing.

    A treasonous thing.

    The worst thing you can be in public service.

    They have aligned with an Agenda that’s about DELIBERATELY crashing us.
    Deliberately reducing us to serfs.

    That’s what Agenda 21 is about; ‘de-industrializing America’.

    You didn’t think it was about the environment, did you?

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 2

  4. Follower says:

    @ GAJ

    I understand the desire to pool our resources to accomplish these grand projects and once upon a time in America we did just that & managed to build a great nation with a 1st class infrastructure.

    But those days are gone… for now.

    Now, we vote to “pool our resources” (more, new taxes) and all that money goes into a cesspool of political corruption, crony capitalism, pay-offs and what we end up with is things like the Bay Bridge. Way over budget (bait & switch) way over schedule and quite possibly no safer than the bridge it was to replace.

    Many people seem to just accept this as “the new normal” and figure “it’s just part of the price”.

    The rest of us have HAD ENOUGH OF THIS CRAP!

    We REFUSE to pretend it’s all OK and the stewards of our tax money are “doing the best they can”.


    We deserve BETTER and shouldn’t allow these incompetent, corrupt fools to spend another red cent of our taxes until they clean up their act.

    “Shut down the Government”?

    Anarchy? Give me a break!! NOBODY in their right mind is suggesting such a thing INCLUDING THE T.E.A. PARTY despite what the re-educators may try to feed you.

    But it’s become painfully clear to anyone paying attention that it WILL take a crisis for our leaders to wake up and cut the crap.

    I much prefer that “crisis” is initiated by “US” not “THEM”.

    NOTHING will change as long as we keep re-electing these people and voting to give them MORE MONEY to waste regardless of how noble the cause or even how imperative it may be.

    But…. THAT’S just “my” opinion.
    I’m all ears if someone would like to explain how I’m wrong.

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  5. Graeme Wellington says:

    I got through the first day traffic jam and was fortunate enough to shake Greg Sarris’ hand and congratulate him on this incredible accomplishment.

    No stories about the magnificence of the property and the fact that the critics were wrong on every issue. It was not crowded with pensioners and the poor gambling away their welfare check. The people there were ordinary folks looking for a little boredom killing and entertainment.

    In short order, the community will be unable to comprehend how they ever lived without it. Great restaurants too. This place is a model for other tribes to emulate.

    And no one is even considering abandoning God or their religious beliefs! Gambling isn’t even mentioned in the Bible! And now I must get back to my “Wolf’s Run” slot machine.

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  6. Elephant says:

    You can thank Lynn Woolsey for NOT getting any money for widening the narrows during a time when ALL of 101 through Marin as far south as Sausalito has been widened and rebuilt. And Huffman doesn’t seem one lick better.

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  7. James Bennett says:

    Doesn’t seem to make sense.

    Widening Hwy 101 would be the best ‘economic stimulous’ thing we could ever do.

    But, automobile use, traveling freely are the antithesis of UN Agenda 21.
    It’s about restricting our mobility and transportation options.

    Undermine car use, undermine private property ownership.

    Promote rail, Smart Growth and bikes.

    How do you like UN Agenda 21?

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 2

  8. James Bennett says:

    More than interesting how there’s money for a $20. million dollar bike bridge, or to buy swamp land for a million an acre, or for Santa Rosa to rebuild/relocate a perfectly nice City Hall. Or to be in the land aquisition business.


    The quality of life, important economic artery that N. Bay residents have been asking for doesn’t have the money.


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  9. GAJ says:

    I’d be willing to pay a special tax on gas in Marin and Sonoma Counties to make this happen faster.

    Makes the decision not to start at the narrows and move Northward all the more idiotic.

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