Marin Employers Agitate for Novato Narrows Completion

Marin business leaders say completing the Novato Narrows widening is crucial for the economy of the North Bay and they hope new funding sources can see the project through.

Sources of cash from a state gas tax increase and possible bridge toll increase made getting $250 million to finish the work a possibility.

And Marin transportation officials are speeding up the design of Novato Narrows widening to make sure they are ready to go to construction if money becomes available. The Transportation Authority of Marin has approved up to $700,000 for design and associated for the widening work.

While various segments of the Narrows — so named because lanes narrow from three to two, causing a bottleneck — have been widened piecemeal in Marin and Sonoma counties over the past several years, more funding is needed to finish work in the 17-mile corridor between Highway 37 in Novato and the Old Redwood Highway interchange in north Petaluma.

Robin Sternberg, chief executive officer of the Marin Economic Forum, told regional transportation officials just how key the project is in hopes of getting new gas tax money.

“Our businesses depend on 60 percent of their workers to commute into Marin each day,” said Sternberg, who spoke to officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission last month. Her organization represents 12,500 businesses in Marin. “Businesses have expressed that their No. 1 concern is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining their workers, and this is causing a significant impact on the cost of doing business in our county. The Narrows project is very important to our businesses’ success and our quality of life in Marin.”

Joanne Webster, president and chief executive officer of the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce — which represents 600 members and 26,000 employees — echoed the same concern at the meeting.

“Over the last few years traffic congestion is at the top of their list of concerns,” she said. “It’s impacting their ability to recruit and retain workers. … The Narrows is a critical need.”

In the end, the commission did not approve recommending gas tax money for the Marin segment of the Narrows project, but it could be funded by a planned bridge toll hike measure known as Regional Measure 3 — which will be on the ballot in June. A $3 toll increase over six years would raise $381 million annually for transportation projects in Marin, Alameda, Contra Costa, Napa, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Solano and San Francisco counties.

“Solving the Narrows is a top regional priority,” said Randy Rentschler, director of legislation and public affairs for the commission. “You have to fix the whole thing in both Marin and Sonoma for it all to work. You can’t get too focused what county the improvement is in.”

The overall project has a price tag of $743 million and would increase lanes from four to six by adding carpool lanes in each direction. In addition to the carpool lanes, new interchanges and frontage roads are being built to remove unsafe access from private properties and local roads. The project also includes continuous bike routes between Novato and Petaluma.

If funding can be located, work to complete the Marin segments could begin by 2020. Sonoma is also working at its end to complete its Narrows segment, officials said.

Planning does involve some difficulties. Exemptions from Caltrans would be needed to build into the existing median, which would help reduce the cost by cutting the need for private property to widen the highway.

“I want to point out the absolute urgency of getting (the Narrows project) done now,” said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Business Council, which represents 25,000 employees.

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