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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.

He said the concerns raised in connection with the Deer Creek EIR needed to be properly addressed.

"It's no longer about who is for and against" Rainier, he said, referring to the project's controversial political history. "It's about whether or not it's an achievable project."

Despite the recent uncertainty, the project has made some small steps forward.

About $3.2 million is currently being spent on design and planning for the cross-town connector portion of Rainier, with an environmental impact report expected to be completed late this summer. A traffic analysis is also underway that will look at the effects of the project on existing intersections, said the city's Capital Improvements Manager Larry Zimmer.

An additional $7.3 in redevelopment money is believed to be secured to participate in the Caltrans 101 Highway widening, said Zimmer. The money would essentially pay for the highway to be lifted, with room left underneath for the new roadway. This is important because an undercrossing is considered much cheaper than a bridge over the highway.

At this point, no additional money has been set aside specifically for Rainier, though much of the funding is expected to come from "traffic impact" fees that developers pay for new projects.

Currently, there's just a little over $2 million in that fund, said Bill Mushallo, the city's finance director. The money isn't guaranteed to go to Rainier, as it is intended for all the city's traffic-related projects. However, city staff and council members have said Rainier would likely take priority over the other projects on the list.

About $6 million is expected to flow into the fund from fees that the Deer Creek Village developer will pay, and an additional $7.26 million is expected from the Target center project, according to Zimmer.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com)