Two long-awaited events arrived almost simultaneously last week in Petaluma &#8211; the opening of the new bridge over Highway 101 that connects Petaluma Blvd. North and Old Redwood Highway, and a healthy dose of rainfall to soak the streets, hills and fields of southern Sonoma County.
The result was a wet, slow but largely uneventful transition of traffic to the new span, at least from law enforcement's perspective.
"We had a couple complaints over signage, but otherwise it was a lot better than I thought it would be," said Sgt. Jim Stephenson of the Petaluma Police Department. There were no accidents, although there were some near misses.
The change in lane placement has some drivers confused and, at times, crazed. "I have had to, at the last minute, switch lanes and risk an accident," said Petaluma resident Tara Baxagocsy on the Petaluma360 Facebook page. "I've seen people coming off the freeway and then getting right back on because there is no sign that a sharp right is needed to go over the bridge and into town."
All the traffic cones and red flags, to say nothing of slowed and stalled traffic, was sparked by the new bridge across Highway 101. The old one was too narrow for current traffic needs with just two lanes, one in either direction. The new Old Redwood Highway bridge is wider, with four lanes for traffic, plus bicycle and pedestrian paths. More traffic should be able to flow smoothly across the north end of Petaluma, onto and off of the freeway and out to McDowell Boulevard — as soon as drivers get used to the new configuration.
The old bridge was also lower than state highway standards allow. The standard clearance is a foot higher than the maximum load size of 14 feet; the new bridge will exceed that recommendation with 16-feet, 6-inches of clearance. The previous bridge was lower than 15 feet, and more than a couple semi-trucks were dinged up by the difference.
But the new bridge presents its own challenges to the road crew. The higher bridge means the Old Redwood Highway has to be graded up and over the new bridge, as do the on-ramps and off-ramps to Highway 101.
As a result, drivers turning onto the freeway suddenly have to shift their habits, from bearing right as they approach the 101 to take the onramp going the same direction. From now on, they must move into the left lane to turn onto the clover loop joining the freeway going to the right. Cross-bridge traffic is now in the right lane as you approach the bridge, not the left.
"This last change was a complete switch," said a county staffer. "You had to make a left before &#8211; through traffic would get in the left lane and freeway traffic would get in the right lane, and now that's the complete opposite."
It might become temporarily even more confusing when the old bridge, to the north of the new span, is demolished. "We are tentatively planning that for Saturday night, March 15, and Saturday night, March 22," said Allyn Amsk of the state Department of Transportation.
"There will be full freeway closures in both directions of U.S. 101 on Saturday night, March 15. On Saturday night, March 22, there will be lane and ramp closures, but the full freeway will be closed in the southbound direction," he added. Those dates are conditional on weather, Amsk noted.