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[caption id="attachment_48819" align="alignright" width="350" caption="A rendering what passenger rail cars could look like in the SMART commuter rail system."][/caption]

The future of transportation in Sonoma County will get a little closer in 2012, with a trio of simultaneous construction projects set to make travel easier within the North Bay and beyond in the coming years.

Drivers have already experienced many of the changes, with 2012 marking the latest round of work in an expected $976 million in improvements to Highway 101 that first began in 2005.  Work also began in January for a $103-million initial construction contract for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit system, and the $84 million expansion of the Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport is expected to begin with  $42.7 million in safety upgrades in July or early August.

Most officials said that it is too early to estimate the precise volume of job creation expected in the upcoming work, though SMART has offered estimates of up to 1,000 upfront workers for its initial contract. Previous estimates for the airport project have predicted nearly 900 jobs created during construction, and optimism persists that upcoming bids for the Highway 101 project will go to local companies, said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

[caption id="attachment_48821" align="alignleft" width="280" caption="The 'Central A' project on Highway 101 is expected to be completed this year, adding five miles of commuter lanes and revamping the interchange with Highway 116."][/caption]

“We’ve been lucky as of late that the work that’s been done so far has been by local firms,” she said, including the North Bay’s Ghilotti Bros, Inc. and Ghilotti Construction Company, as well as Berkeley’s O.C. Jones & Sons Inc.

The highway work alone is the largest-ever transportation project in Sonoma County, with additional work occurring in Northern Marin, she said.

“It’s close to a billion dollars of construction work over the years,” Ms. Smith said.

Three highway projects are expected to begin in 2012: a $47 million modification to the interchange near Airport Boulevard and Fulton Road in Santa Rosa, a $78 million project creating a new interchange and frontage road at the Redwood Landfill and a $123 million project to create a new interchange and frontage roads at Petaluma Boulevard South, as well as replacing the Petaluma River Bridge.

Three components are also slated for completion in 2013: this spring, drivers should be able to take advantage of five miles of new, high-occupancy vehicle lanes near a newly upgraded interchange between Highways 101 and 116. This fall, work is expected to complete on 1.6 miles of new HOV lanes near a new Wilfred Avenue interchange in Rohnert Park, as well as an additional 1.8 miles of HOV lanes extending from Pepper Road to the Old Redwood Highway Bridge.

Ms. Smith said that residents would see numerous highway projects occurring through 2012 and 2013, including a number of projects to improve the so-called “Marin-Sonoma Narrows” between Novato and Petaluma.

Yet some upcoming components of the highway overhaul are in flux, with a $256 million funding shortfall putting a new Route 116 bridge and a stretch of HOV lanes between Petaluma and Novato on hold. Ms. Smith said that upcoming funding pressures include the sunset of the voter-approved Prop. 1B bond measure in California and uncertainty surrounding federal transportation funding. The county’s Measure M, passed in 2005, generates approximately $17 million for transportation projects annually, though the allotted 40 percent of that assigned to Highway 101 is now dedicated to servicing bonds.

Ms. Smith said that she was optimistic, however, that having several projects pre-planned would help to increase their chances of receiving available funds in the near future.

Meanwhile, 95 percent of the improvements to the Sonoma County Airport will be financed by federal aviation grants. The first part of the project, occurring in two phases over two years, will involve extending the airport’s main runway by 885 feet to 6,000 feet, and a second runway by 200 feet, to 5,002 feet. Those extensions will put the airport in line with new federal rules well ahead of a 2015 deadline and allow mid-sized commercial jets to operate at the site.

“The anticipation is, at the end of May, we’ll have a bid to publish” said airport Manager John Stout, referring to the first phase that will add lighting and other improvements to the airport’s secondary runway.

The second part of the project, which includes a new passenger terminal, cargo facility and control tower improvements, will occur over the long term and be dependent on the growth of the airport. The county-owned airport reported it’s busiest-ever year in 2011, with 207,188 total passengers marking a nearly 10 percent increase versus 2010.

The SMART passenger rail system, expected for completion in late 2015 or early 2016, could award two or three additional contracts this year after the failure of an effort to repeal the project’s dedicated sales tax funding, the quarter-cent Measure Q. The failure freed revenue from a $191 million bond sale in December that was held in escrow.

 The initial SMART contract involves underlying work for a 38.5-mile stretch of track between downtown Santa Rosa in Sonoma County and San Rafael in Marin. A final leg into downtown San Rafael, to complete the length of the system’s initial operating segment, will involve a separate contract.

The full length of the proposed system, from Cloverdale in Sonoma County to Larkspur in Marin, has been delayed because of the economy.