Petaluma Boulevard South will soon be narrowed down as part of a "road diet" plan that was approved for a second time by the City Council on Monday. But not before strong concerns were voiced by downtown businesses who fear the plan would decrease visitors driving to their stores.

The "road diet" is designed to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety by narrowing Petaluma Boulevard South from four lanes to three on a portion between Washington Street and D Street. Instead of two lanes in each direction, the plan calls for one lane each way and a continuous center left-turn lane, allowing more space for bike lanes and parking. The plan was approved by the previous council in October 2010, and relies on a $708,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and a $200,000 match from the city.

But on Monday, the council was asked to approve a revised spending plan for the project. Although the total cost will remain the same, more money had to be directed toward environmental studies required by Caltrans for underground work. The funding for those studies will come from money saved in lower-than-expected construction costs, said Larry Zimmer, the city's capitol improvements manager.

When the plan was originally approved last year, downtown businesses expressed fears that the road diet would make downtown less accessible for many customers driving to their stores. They also emphasized the need to be kept in the loop throughout the process by city staff and construction crews.

"We agree that we want more and safer access for bikes and pedestrians," said Jeff Mayne, past president of the Petaluma Downtown Association. "But we and many of our businesses feel like we are kind of &‘in the dark' about the issue."

"I believe it will actually create more traffic problems," said Linda Postenrieder, owner of Pelican Art Gallery, who was worried about where delivery trucks would stop.

But city staff, who consulted with the businesses before applying for the grant, said they plan to continue to meet with businesses to address delivery, parking, and other issues as the project moves forward.

"I can assure you the communications will be open," said Zimmer.

"There have been no attempts to include people in the process (so far) because the process hasn't started yet," he said, noting that construction won't start for at least one year as planning continues.

Zimmer also said that a previous road diet project on Petaluma Boulevard North in 2008 has proved successful in reducing collisions. Twenty accidents were reported there between 2005 and 2005, while only nine came after the road diet, from 2007 to 2009.

The council ultimately approved the revised spending plan on a 4-3 vote, but road safety and consideration of businesses surfaced as the main concerns.

"The facts are that the road diet we put in north of Washington Street has proven to be safer," said Mayor David Glass, who was joined by Chris Albertson, Teresa Barrett and Tiffany Ren? in supporting the project.

"On a daily basis, motorists on the Boulevard are not paying attention," said Ren?.

But Mike Harris, Mike Healy and Gabe Kearney were concerned about alienating businesses and said that city money may be better spent on street repairs.

"There is some uncertainty in the project, in my view," said Harris.

"I think it's based more on wishful thinking than sound analysis," said Healy about the benefits of the project.

Construction, which includes re-painting roads and installing signs, should start in summer 2012 and is expected to be finished in October 2012, according to city staff.

(Contact Philip Riley at philip.riley@arguscourier.com)