The plan approved by the City Council to narrow Petaluma Boulevard from four lanes to three lanes between Washington and D streets over the next year offers many options for discussion. This project will cost about $900,000, comprising $700,000 in federal funds and $200,000 in city funds.

A little aside here: Remember when we were told there would be only a $5,000 reserve in city funds last year? Where did $200,000 come from? Would you rather have had that money spent for pothole repair?

From the point of view of whether or not it will improve the traffic conditions downtown, I'm wondering why the city doesn't just spend a few hundred dollars for paint and several thousand dollars in city labor to change the existing lane markings to the newly approved version. This would show if the project is a good idea or not, before big money is spent. Perhaps no one in charge wants to know.

(One of my civil engineering profs used to say, "An engineer can do for a dime what any fool can do for a dollar." Cost-effectiveness shouldn't be so quickly overlooked.)

Let's talk money for a minute or two. We all rant about how the federal government is wastefully spending our money. Here we are helping them spend it to the tune of $700,000. Of course, if we can get this money spent in Petaluma for a city cost of only $200,000, what a bargain. And if it wasn't spent here, some other congressman would waste it in his district. And it's our money after all. And, who cares? I care.

But on to why it's being done, other than the hoped-for traffic improvement — $900,000 spent for this will fund a Sonoma County traffic consultant and design engineer or two, a city employee or two to monitor the consultant and the eventual construction project, and contribute to job growth in Sonoma County through the construction payroll and materials to be purchased for the project.

By the way, the city personnel working on this project can have their salaries charged to the project rather than to the city's General Fund. That will save the city money if the $200,000 of city money isn't counted.

So, even if it doesn't work, we've bought several person years of employment. This might be considered a good thing in the current fiscal situation, but it shows how, just maybe, we're also part of the government spending problem.

Funny how we criticize the expenditure of federal money except when it goes to "good" projects like this in our town.

Of course, this will be done with some selected improvements on the Boulevard. Pedestrian push-outs like the ones at Putnam Plaza will be constructed. These are proposed for pedestrian safety, but the real reason is to inhibit cars and slow down traffic still more.

Of course, it might be thought the push-outs guarantee that once the project is complete it can't be reversed because it would cost so much city money to tear them out.

Suppose the fed's $700,000 could have been used for bike lanes somewhere else. Would this project have been approved?

There's still plenty of time for the downtown business people to push for the paint-only option. But if this project won't be complete until after the next election, there's little pressure that can be brought on the council.

This is a good example of how our local government works. There's been no significant public discussion of the project (our fault as much as anyone's). The project was approved, but there'll be no outward sign of progress for a long while. Then the construction contract will be approved by the council some night.

The final action will be our being forced to live forever with whatever the result is.

(Jack Balshaw is a retired transportation planner and former Petaluma City Council member. His e-mail address is jbcolumn@sbcglobal.net.)