Highway work causes confusion

Two long-awaited events arrived almost simultaneously last week in Petaluma – 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 – 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.

The construction over the past year has been part of the U.S. 101 Old Redwood Highway Interchange Improvement Project, one of three major interchange projects that have enveloped the city.

Like the similar East Washington Street interchange and the South Petaluma Blvd project at Highway 116, the impact on motorists has been a series of traffic delays and confusion.

"It's going to be a mess for a while," noted Stephenson.

But the end result, in the opinion of policy-makers, make it worthwhile. "The project's improvements will reduce travel time, decrease congestion, enhance safety, improve pedestrian and bicycle access, improve air quality and improve traffic flow on local streets at the interchange and on U.S. 101," Amsk said.

Current traffic conditions at the north Petaluma interchange should remain about the same for at least five months, until the next stage of the construction process.

The Petaluma Blvd. North and Old Redwood Highway interchange project should be completed in mid-2015. At that time, only the planned HOV lanes running from the county line through Petaluma will remain unbuilt at the new interchange.

The county's roadway fund through Measure M has been depleted, and the final leg of the HOV lane additions through Petaluma falls about $90 million short at this point, of the total projected budget of $1.2 billion for the entire Highway 101 widening project from Novato to Windsor. That stage of the project will not move forward until the funding is in place, according to the Sonoma County Transportation Authority.

Meanwhile another construction projects in town suffered "a small mishap" at East Washington Street, according to Public Works manager Larry Zimmer. While filling a water main with slurry, a pipe broke filling the soil with slurry and creating a bump in the roadway.

"This occurred just west of Copeland, near the entrance to the Golden Eagle shopping center and has resulted in the inside lane for eastbound traffic getting coned off," he said.