Future of Rainier murky

The long-awaited Rainier cross-town connector and highway interchange, which would provide a traffic-easing link between east and west Petaluma, has had a long and rocky history since it was first called for in 1965. It appears that even now, more than 45 years later and after a strong majority of residents voted in favor of the project in 2004, the city is still grappling with concerns over funding and political support for the project.

Some residents, including a former mayor and City Council member, recently raised questions about the feasibility of the project in connection with a proposed development, the Friedman's-anchored Deer Creek Village shopping center, which would in the future rely on Rainier for traffic mitigation.

Based on the large volume of letters expressing doubts about the transportation project's viability, city staff is currently reassessing how much Rainier will cost and how it will be funded, said City Attorney Eric Danly this week.

Because of that, city staff couldn't provide a current estimate of how much Rainier will cost, he said. He added that staff plans to provide detailed information about how much Rainier will cost and how it will be paid for at the City Council's April 2 hearing to consider the environmental impact report for the Deer Creek Village development. That hearing, originally scheduled for Feb. 27, was postponed based on the volume of concerns raised at the last minute.

Those concerns included how the loss of redevelopment money would affect the Rainier project's funding, and whether or not Caltrans would approve the interchange portion of the project as part of a second phase.

In 2010, the City Council unanimously decided to move forward with an undercrossing-only plan. The city has maintained that the interchange is still on the table, though there is currently no funding for it.

Caltrans would have to provide an exception for the interchange, which would be located at a shorter distance than the agency's standard one-mile separation from the nearest interchange at East Washington Street. Caltrans Spokesman Bob Haus said this week that the agency is concerned that Petaluma hasn't used up-to-date traffic data in planning for the interchange.

Earlier estimates have placed the cost of the Rainier undercrossing at $32 to 48 million. The interchange portion of the project is expected to cost significantly more.

Council members Mike Healy and Mike Harris, who have strongly supported the interchange and connector, expressed confidence that Rainier should and would be funded. Healy pointed to proposed development projects that could contribute additional millions of dollars to the traffic impact fee fund, which will help pay for Rainier. He also suggested that if the county's transportation tax, Measure M, were extended by voters, proceeds could help fund the cost of the full interchange.

But Mayor David Glass, who has long pointed to what he said was a lack of funding for the project, was less certain.

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