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Rainier extension inches along

Nearly 13 years after 72 percent of Petaluma voters approved an advisory measure directing city officials to do everything possible to make the long-delayed Rainier crosstown connector and interchange a reality, there is a reasonable likelihood that the first segment of the project could be under construction as soon as 2019.

Given years of frustration over the desperate need for traffic relief in the center of the city, no other local public improvement project before or since has received such a clear mandate from voters, leading the city to actively pursue the design, funding and construction of the project that will one day link Petaluma Boulevard North with the intersection of Rainier Avenue and McDowell Boulevard.

The Rainier connector, widely viewed as an essential traffic relief measure, has been in city plans for more than 50 years. The siting and development of Petaluma Valley Hospital and Santa Rosa Junior College were predicated upon its future construction. So were the Petaluma Premium Outlets shopping center, the city’s police station and, more recently, the Deer Creek Village shopping center. It is well beyond time to get this project built.

Since that historic 2004 vote, the city has taken incremental steps towards realizing this critically important transportation improvement goal, spending millions of dollars on design and environmental studies to ensure that the Rainier Avenue extension project’s first phase, an undercrossing, is completed when Highway 101 is widened through Petaluma.

Earlier this month, the city council took an important step by authorizing City Manager John Brown to negotiate for the acquisition of property off Petaluma Boulevard North, the future western terminus of the .65-mile Rainier Avenue extension. The connecting roadway passing under the freeway and over the railroad tracks and the Petaluma River will comprise the first phase of the project’s completion. Phase two, a freeway interchange, would need Caltrans approval.

Once this much-needed project is completed, studies have shown it will relieve traffic congestion on the busy East Washington Street corridor while enabling east side residents to more conveniently access a burgeoning downtown center and helping west side residents gain easier access to the hospital, sports fields, the junior college, shopping and jobs east of the freeway.

Construction of the roadway hinges on Caltrans widening Highway 101 through Petaluma, a long planned state project that county transportation officials are hopeful could win funding by 2018, once monies are made available from increased state gas taxes later this year. The freeway work will raise Highway 101 at the location of the Rainier extension, creating an underpass for the new crosstown roadway.

To finance construction of the roadway, the city has already earmarked much of the needed funding from traffic impact fees derived from Petaluma’s two newest shopping center developments. Today, the city has $23 million in a fund set aside to build the first phase of the project.

As with any large public improvement project of this sort, especially one as costly as Rainier, political will is a vital component to sustain momentum. Petaluma’s elected officials have not always been in agreement on the importance of the project. Such discord on the part of public representatives is deadly in terms of getting a public works project built, so it is a very good thing that such faulty thinking is limited to minority representation.

We applaud Petaluma’s City Council members on achieving the latest step in the Rainier project, and encourage them to take all other necessary action to ensure the project is ready to be built once the highway widening gets underway.