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Surprise roadwork frustrates motorists

Lunchtime traffic on Friday, Aug. 10 at the beginning of the detour at Payran and East Washington streets.

Janelle Wetzstein/Argus-Courier Staff
Published: Friday, August 17, 2012 at 8:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 17, 2012 at 8:30 a.m.

Frustrated local motorists already put out by East Washington Street roadwork became more agitated last week when, without notice, the city's water main replacement project forced an unexpected closure of all westbound lanes from Payran Street to Edith Street. The road closures are continuing this week one block east, beginning at Ellis Street.

“All we got was the original warning about six weeks ago,” said Dana Leavitt, store team leader for Whole Foods, whose business is in the closure area. “That first morning the lane closures started, I went out and talked to them. At least the construction folks have been really great to work with when we've had issues.”

Leavitt admitted that Whole Foods' foot traffic has been suffering since the lane closures and overall construction began, but noted that he can't be certain if it's all due to the construction or summertime vacationers.

“Business is down, but it could have to do with other factors, such as the other two construction projects on East Washington Street,” he said.

Typically, when a road closure is planned, the contractor is required to give 24-48 hours of notice to affected residents and businesses, said city engineering manager Larry Zimmer.

“It came down to the contractor's call and they felt that because the closure and detours were minor, additional notices did not need to be sent out,” said Zimmer. “But because there were a fair number of complaints and phone calls, we decided to issue formal notices later that morning.”

Zimmer added that another reason notices were not sent out earlier is that there had never been any intent to close down all lanes of traffic. He called the move a “safety decision” that contractors made as work progressed.

Because of the last-minute change, commuters were surprised when a short detour hampered their morning commute beginning Aug. 8. Even more surprised were the residents on side streets along the detour, which ran along Payran, Madison and East D Streets.

Wind McAlister owns a home on East D Street and commented on Facebook that the detours have made life very difficult for her family.

“We have had backed up traffic from morning until night,” McAlister said. “It's hard to park in front of our home or to leave. It has taken me 10-15 minutes just to get out to pick up my child from school.”

McAlister added that drivers using the detour on her street have often honked at her and refused to let her out. “Be a little nicer,” she said.

Leavitt said that when the lane closures first began Aug. 8 at 7 a.m., signage was posted incorrectly, leading traffic to be routed through the Whole Foods parking lot.

“We had tour buses and City of Petaluma buses using our parking lot to turn around. I was almost run over,” Leavitt joked. “But the contractors reacted quickly and fixed it. Afterwards it was kind of funny.”

But tempers flared last Thursday and Friday, forcing Petaluma Police to mediate. Lt. Tim Lyons said he spent several hours at the site on Thursday afternoon dealing with drivers who were ignoring the posted signage.

“Our motorcycle officers were down there and observed some near collisions,” Lyons said. “It appears that there is proper signage but people are trying to adjust to the detour. We're cautioning everyone to slow down and pay attention to the signs.”

Friday's lunchtime commute at the corner of Payran and East Washington streets featured car horns blaring every other minute, with drivers tearing through the Shell gas station to avoid the short light that forced drivers to wait through several cycles before making it onto the detour. A Shell gas station employee who would not give his name likened the gas station parking lot to a “freeway.”

Several near-collisions occurred when seemingly confused drivers trying to shift directions at the last second cut in front of larger vehicles like buses or supply trucks. Cars waiting at the lights to turn onto the detour began running red lights to avoid the short cycles.

But Zimmer said that the inconvenience is necessary to fix the city's aging water mains.

“The water mains supply water to everyone along that stretch of road. They are 75 years old and have a fair amount of problems,” Zimmer said. “We need to have people go out there and repair it. It's an emergency nature.”

Zimmer pointed out that there was a major break last year in the Golden Eagle shopping center water main that caused extensive damage to the roadway. “When a utility line becomes problematic and you know it's old, it becomes a necessary project to prevent further damage,” he said.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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