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At last week's city council candidates forum, several council hopefuls said the issue they heard about most on the campaign trail this year is the dilapidated condition of city streets. Indeed, road repair and other transportation issues, like building the elusive Rainier Crosstown Connector, have only grown in importance in voters' minds over the years.

While candidates agree these are two of the biggest issues facing Petaluma, they differ on how, exactly, to tackle them. Here's where candidates stand on funding street repair and building Rainier.

City street repair

Petaluma's cracked and pothole-ridden roads are never far from most residents' minds, and all the council candidates acknowledged that the streets pose an expensive problem that city must tackle.

A report issued last December by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission showed just how difficult that job has become: It found that Petaluma would have to spend $132.4 million over the next five years to bring its network of streets back up to the recommended "optimal" condition.

Just to keep streets at their current level would cost $7 million a year. Currently, Petaluma spends about $2.5 million on all road-related activities in Petaluma. Most of it goes to basic street repairs, with little left over for long-term maintenance.

Candidates have suggested putting a sales tax on the ballot to help fund road work.

Councilmember Mike Healy proposed placing a half cent sales tax measure on the ballot. That would bring in an estimated $5 million annually, of which Healy said he would like roads to receive the biggest share.

Vice Mayor Tiffany Ren? proposed this summer placing a sales tax on this November's ballot, suggesting that some of the proceeds go to road repair. The tax measure did not make it to the ballot.

Business owner Jason Davies expressed concern over passing an additional tax when people are already "hurting" financially. "I would turn every stone possible before moving to increase taxes," he said.

Councilmember Gabe Kearney also spoke tentatively about a sales tax increase, referencing a general wariness of more taxes on the part of many residents. "We can entertain the idea of a sales tax increase for roads," he said, "but it would be important for us as a city to make sure that we had the needed support before going forward."

Former Planning Commissioner Kathy Miller said she would support a "small" sales tax increase to be dedicated to street repair and maintenance.

Healy and Miller also suggested asking voters to extend the countywide tax initiative Measure M, which is currently set to expire in 2024, and dedicate some of the proceeds to city and county road repair.

Ren? also said she supported extending Measure M in 2012 and would like to revisit doing so in 2014.

One low-hanging fruit that most of the candidates said they would consider is an offer by the city's garbage hauler, North Bay Corp., to essentially extend its contract for an additional 15 years in exchange for the hauler paying an extra $500,000 annually in franchise fees to the city. This money could help fund road repair, but only a small portion of what is needed. In the proposed scenario, customers' garbage rates would stay the same.

Doing so would require circumventing the typical competitive bidding process, something Planning Commissioner Alicia Kae Herries said she was uncomfortable with. Ren? said she wanted to see the proposed new contract, which is still being drafted, before saying whether or not she'd support it.

Healy added that road repair was not simply a "local problem." "It is a huge problem across the entire region, if not the whole state," he said, adding, "It deserves a regional or state-wide solution."

Herries also described the problem as extending beyond Petaluma and said she would focus on working with other councilmembers and regional, state and federal decision makers to secure funding for road repair through grants.

"Given the limited funds available for road improvements, I am supportive of projects that can be funded with grants," she said, adding that she would work with other councilmembers to identify the projects that offer the greatest leverage for grants.

Ren? said that "economic development" would be necessary to address the "enormous funding gap," also putting an emphasis on finding ways to reduce car travel in Petaluma.

"If we reduce car trips, we will slow the wear and tear on our already deteriorating roads and ensure that new roads will last longer," she said. Ren? pointed to increasing student ridership on city transit as one way to do this, as well as car sharing and improving public transit. She argued that taking these steps would make Petaluma more eligible for funding from the regional transportation authority, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which has made reducing car travel a priority.

Rainier Crosstown Connector

While candidates agree that Petaluma's roads need improving, they differ on another transportation-related issue: Whether or not the council should prioritize building the Rainier Crosstown Connector. The project, controversial for some and long-awaited by many, was first called for in 1965. Obstacles such as funding challenges and inconsistent political support have kept the project from happening over the last 45 years.

Supporters say it would provide a traffic-easing link between east and west Petaluma, especially as the Target and Friedman's shopping centers open and draw more traffic to the area, while critics say it would simply enable more development.

The city is currently completing an environmental review for the first phase of the project, but funding and political support remain critical components to the costly project being built. The city estimates that building the crosstown connector portion of the project, which would extend Rainier Avenue under Highway 101 and connect it to Petaluma Boulevard North, would cost $64 million. The full interchange version of the project is projected to cost $115 million.

Healy has long been a strong advocate for the project, and Miller and Kearney also said they fully supported finding funding for Rainier. Davies and Ren? said they supported the project as a needed form of traffic mitigation, but expressed some concerns over how it would be funded. Herries was the only candidate to say that the council should consider taking it out of the general plan.

Herries said that, though Rainier was approved decades earlier, the city has never set aside the funding to make it a priority.

"It is time to honestly reassess this reality," she said, pointing to the high cost of the project and the uncertainty of funding. "In doing so, we will need to update our General Plan and change our conversation to one that is achievable, planning for a better Petaluma that is reality based."

"We need to look at other ways of moving about the community," she said, adding that alternative traffic mitigations could include increasing ridership on Petaluma Transit, ensuring safe walking and bicycling trails, and SMART train.

Ren? said that she had done everything she could to make the project possible, but that it still faces financial hurdles. She added that the project could benefit from funding from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, but only if Petaluma is able to provide adequate matching funds.

"The Rainier Crosstown Connector is necessary to fulfill the congestion mitigations required for many large-scale projects approved and being built," acknowledged Ren?. She added, "So far, without identifying significant sources of funding, it remains an exercise in paper traffic relief that keeps projects in compliance with the General Plan."

Ren? also expressed concern over relying mainly on the "traffic impact" fees charged to developers to get the project build. She argued that doing so will make traffic much worse before it gets better, "unless we ask the voters to bond against future fees, or impose a revenue measure upon themselves to pay for it sooner."

Jason Davies said it was unfortunate that leaders have promised Rainier as a form of traffic relief for years despite the project facing large funding challenges, though he acknowledged that the need for the project would only grow as more development projects are completed.

"I'm in favor of Rainier, but it (the 2004 advisory measure indicating voter approval) was passed without a clear funding mechanism." He added, "We need to level with people and acknowledge that we won't have critical traffic relief for a while."

"Ideally, development impact fees would be enough to fund such projects," he said, "but it appears that unless other projects are sacrificed or new funding is (obtained), it remains an enormous challenge in the near term. I would not be opposed to considering new revenues (tax measures) to achieve funding, but we would need to ensure the public is supportive before spending money to place it on the ballot."

Healy, meanwhile, has been one of the most dedicated supporters of Rainier, writing an advisory ballot measure in 2004 where 72 percent of voters said they'd like to see the project happen.

"I'm serious about making the Rainier project happen," he said, adding that he thinks the city is closer than ever to building the first phase of the project. He explained that the upcoming widening of Highway 101 through Petaluma — expected to happen within the next eight years — would allow for the first step to be taken toward building Rainier. At that point, Petaluma will pay Caltrans to elevate the highway, leaving a space underneath for Rainier to pass under.

He added that he is fighting for $7.5 in redevelopment funds that had been set aside to help fund the project through his position as chair of the committee that is overseeing the dissolution of Petaluma's redevelopment agency.

"The Target and Friedman's projects will pay a combined $12 million in traffic mitigation impact fees, and as far as I'm concerned all of those dollars are reserved for Rainier," Healy said. "The city's development impact fees will require new development to pay for most of the cost of Rainier."

Miller described herself as an enthusiastic supporter of Rainier.

"Most of the people I know are very anxious to see it built," she said, adding that Rainier is clearly called for in the city's general plan. Miller said she hoped that redevelopment funding that had been set aside for Rainier before the state dissolved redevelopment agencies could be recovered for the project.

Kearney said Rainier's time to be built has come. "Rainier, if done correctly, will help to ease traffic at core intersections in town and reduce travel times for our public safety responders," he said. "I have made it clear in my time on the council that this is a priority and have been supportive of allocating funds to move forward with environmental impact studies for this project."

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@arguscourier.com.)