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 &#8230; 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.