The fight to ease Petaluma's traffic woes took a major step forward last week when a final draft of the Rainier cross-town connector project's environmental study was submitted to the city.

Senior Planner Heather Hines said city staff will examine the report and most likely release the document to the public in late September or early October.

The much-debated Rainier cross-town connector, first proposed in 1965, is designed to link east and west Petaluma by extending Rainier Avenue. Rainier currently ends at North McDowell Boulevard in east Petaluma and would be extended underneath Highway 101, through to Petaluma Boulevard North.

The project's construction is meant to take place at the same time as the widening of Highway 101 through Petaluma, since lengthening Rainier Avenue requires first raising the highway to make room for the road to pass.

Building that structure for the road to pass under will be paid for by the City of Petaluma and is expected to cost about $11.7 million dollars. Last year, the city spent $646,000 on the project, with another $566,000 earmarked this year for finishing the environmental study and designing the structure itself.

Completing the Highway 101 widening through Petaluma falls to Caltrans, which currently has not identified a way to pay for $90 million of the massive $96.4 million project. The widening is part of a larger, countywide project to expand Highway 101 to six lanes through Sonoma County, funded by a sales tax known as Measure M. Passed in 2004, the quarter-cent tax increase was meant to fund widening Highway 101 through the county, but as the economy turned and sales tax dwindled, the Sonoma County Transportation Authority came up short on funding to finish the Petaluma portion of the project. Until the money is raised, the Rainier project is in limbo.

Larry Zimmer, Petaluma's capital improvements manager, said that since Caltrans will eventually widen 101 through Petaluma, the city has tried to coordinate the Rainier project with the agency's timelines. It is also paying for Caltrans to create the undercrossing structure.

"We are paying for creating the undercrossing … because Caltrans wouldn't need to raise the highway if we weren't trying to create the cross-town connector," he said.

Zimmer added that the projected start date for construction on that structure was originally slated for fiscal year 2016-2017, but pointed out that the schedule depends on Caltrans obtaining the necessary funds to finish the widening.

Sonoma County Transportation Authority Executive Director Suzanne Smith said she is pleased that the city is moving forward to line up its projects, despite the lack of funding for the widening project.

"If someone wrote us a check for the $90 million we are short today, we could most likely begin construction in 18-24 months," said Smith. "It's not unlike what we experienced in the northern part of the 101 corridor. We didn't have the funds, but we positioned ourselves well and got all the projects ready to go and the funds became available."

Smith said that finalizing projects attached to the highway widening — like the Rainier cross-town connector — puts SCTA in a better position to lobby for needed funds.

Councilmember Mike Harris, Petaluma's representative to the SCTA, said that a finished EIR is good news.

"Yes, it's incremental movement, but it's movement and that's incredibly positive," he said.

But finalizing Rainier plans is easier said than done. While several projects in the area rely on the cross-town connector for traffic relief, including the coming Deer Creek Shopping Center and the newly opened East Washington Place shopping center, some citizens oppose the project.

A 2004 vote showed that 72 percent of the Petaluma's population wanted the east-west connection built. But other portions of the community have voiced a strong opposition to the increase in traffic and the environmental impacts building the Rainier connector could potentially bring — opposition that will likely continue as the project moves forward.

Even when the undercrossing is built, the city is still a long way from securing the funds to extend Rainier Avenue to Petaluma Boulevard North and add interchanges onto Highway 101. The estimated cost to finish the entire project is $115 million. In 2008, the Rainier Avenue extension portion of the project was estimated to cost $38 million. City officials say that number is no longer accurate but could provide an updated figure.

Zimmer said that $84 million of the total $115 million is expected to come from future impact fees paid by developers as more projects called for in the general plan are built. Currently, the city's traffic mitigation fee fund balance is more than $9.9 million. $23.4 million is set to come from local roadway construction costs and developments adjacent to the project, still leaving the project $7.5 million short.

The city was planning to direct $7.5 million in redevelopment funds toward the project, but now finds itself battling the state for the money. After redevelopment agencies were dissolved in 2012, Petaluma sued the state to regain some of the funds that had been held by the agency, including those set aside for Rainier. No ruling has been reached on the $7.5 million Petaluma had set aside for Rainier.

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