Trends for 2013: Transportation: Year of planes, trains and highways

NORTH BAY -- Few would disagree that the population and commerce of the North Bay has grown faster than the region's transportation infrastructure. But with new construction and funding for several large-scale projects in 2012, the region's roads, runways and rails may now be catching up.

Three of the most ambitious transportation projects in the North Bay each took major steps forward in 2012, with construction that will continue into 2013. Further progress is expected next year in the expansions of Highway 101 and the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, and construction continues for the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit commuter railway.

The long-running project to overhaul and expand Highway 101 through Marin and Sonoma Counties -- the largest-ever transportation project in the region and expected to cost nearly $1 billion in Sonoma County alone -- received a major funding boost from the California Transportation Commission in 2012. The state allocated more than $112 million to the project in May, funding bridge, interchange and frontage road construction south of Petaluma. An additional $30 million supported construction for a new interchange at Santa Rosa's Airport Boulevard and at Old Redwood Highway in Petaluma, and Sonoma County allocated more than $38 million in matching funds to those projects during the year.

“In the coming year, we’re going to see a lot more construction south of Petaluma,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

New high-occupancy vehicle lanes constructed as part of the project were opened in 2012, allowing unbroken “carpool lanes” from northern Petaluma to Windsor. New stretches in Marin allowed continuous commuter lanes southbound from southern Novato to the Golden Gate Bridge, and nearly continuous lanes northbound.

While those lanes created an immediate benefit for car-pooling commuters, drivers will still have to wait for improvements to the oft-lamented two-lane stretch between Petaluma and Novato known as "the Narrows." The Marin Transportation Authority requires approximately $80 million to extend carpool lanes up to the border with Sonoma County, and the Sonoma County Transportation Authority is looking for ways to bridge a gap of approximately $150 million to extend lanes from southern Petaluma.

Construction to lengthen runways at the Sonoma County Airport is expected to be completed in July 2014, part of a $53 million project approved in early 2012. The vast majority of that funding is from federal sources and is part of new regulations for runways in the United States, but leaders at the airport have noted that the longer runways will also give current and potential commercial carriers greater options in terms of aircraft.

The expansion is part of a larger vision for the airport, which would include approximately $50 million to $60 million for a new passenger terminal, cargo facilities and a control tower. Further expansion will depend on commercial passenger activity, which has continued to break records since the Horizon Air began offering flights in 2007.

“We’ll finish up 2012 with another record year,” up 3.5 to 4 percent versus last year’s commercial passenger volume, said Jon Stout, general manager at the airport.

Other airport activity has seen an uptick as well. General aviation flights, including hobby pilots and private travel, is up 4 percent comparing the first nine months of 2012 to the prior year, Mr. Stout said. Fuel sales are up, as well as rental car usage.

“Our mix of travelers is changing,” he said. While 58 percent of passengers were outbound in 2010, there are now approximately equal numbers visiting Sonoma County and traveling elsewhere.

[caption id="attachment_58027" align="alignleft" width="300"] A fleet of 12 "diesel multiple unit" railcars are under construction for the SMART commuter rail system[/caption]

SMART, the regional rail project, celebrated its ceremonial groundbreaking in February. The event followed a project bond sale that ultimately reached $199 million, and the failure of opponents to gather enough signatures for a proposed ballot measure to repeal the sales tax that helps fund the project.

Crews are installing new tracks for the system, working south from Santa Rosa and performing much of the underlying work for a series of stations between the city and Marin County's civic center. Planners have also identified a site for a maintenance facility in northern Santa Rosa, and trains are under construction in an Illinois factory.

The SMART board of directors approved a $60 million contract amendment for its original $104 million contract in December, authorizing the joint venture of Alameda-based Stacy and Witbeck Inc. and Herzog Contracting Corp. to construct underlying electronics and safety measures for the system in 2013.

Another large contract, which includes construction of the maintenance facility and a stretch of rail into downtown San Rafael, will go to bid early next year and be awarded in spring 2013, said Carolyn Glendening, community outreach coordinator for SMART.

Construction of the railway will continue into Marin in 2013, along with the installation of a bridge that will replace the former Haystack Landing Bridge over the Petaluma River and the rebuilding of three other bridges, she said. North Bay vendors have accounted for over half of the hours devoted to the original design/build contract to date, according to SMART.

The first of 13 railcars for the system is expected to be delivered for testing purposes at the end of 2013, with the initial operating segment between Santa Rosa and San Rafael opened to passengers in late 2015 or early 2016, she said. To date, $153.5 million in contracts have been awarded.

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