City Council approves upgrades for North McDowell Boulevard, but with caveat

“You’re not gonna get mom and the kids going to the grocery store on those bike lanes,“ Petaluma City Council member D’Lynda Fischer said.|

“When are you going to fix North McDowell?”

That’s a common question from the public, said Ken Eichstaedt, Petaluma’s senior traffic engineer, when he talks about the city’s traffic needs.

“I get that a lot,” he said during a Petaluma City Council discussion Monday night about the North McDowell Improvement Project.

The Council on Monday unanimously approved the project, a longstanding effort to make the north end of the boulevard — a well-used industrial corridor that in recent years has also become a craft beer mecca — more functional, more attractive and, above all, safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The project includes repaving surfaces, installing bike lanes and other improvements to the 1¾-mile stretch of McDowell from Corona Road to Old Redwood Highway.

But the Council left open for discussion what type of bike lanes will be installed.

Rumblings of discontent over the bike lanes — which are not continuous dedicated lanes in the current proposal — were heard a few days earlier during a community meeting on the project. While project designers said they couldn’t provide dedicated bike lanes due to roadway and budget constraints, Council members and others said the current design’s bike lanes, which would be more exposed to traffic, wouldn’t suffice.

“You’re not gonna get mom and the kids going to the grocery store,” Council member D’Lynda Fischer said. Given the fast, heavy trucks on that stretch of road, only “the daring ones” will use those bike lanes as currently proposed, she said.

Council member Brian Barnacle agreed. He called the proposed lanes inadequate and shared Fischer’s dismay over a process they believe cuts Council members out of the planning stages.

“We’re spending $12 million and I’m here at the end of the line and I haven't been consulted once,” he said. “And that feels like the definition of a rubber stamp.”

Council member Kevin McDonnell called the current bike network a “hodgepodge,” while Vice Mayor Dennis Pocekay noted, “If we don’t make it any easier for the bikes, the traffic pattern won’t change, the number of people on bikes won’t change, and we just won’t get to the future.”

Bike lanes aside, all seemed to agree the plans for North McDowell were otherwise good, and that improving safety along the road was the top concern. From 2016 to 2020, there were over 130 injury collisions, according to Eichstaedt.

“That’s significant,” he said.

The project as approved awards a contract to Santa Rosa-based Ghilotti Construction to repave surfaces; close gaps in the sidewalks; install better pedestrian crossings, including “refuge islands” in some places; install curb ramps with detectable warning surfaces to alert drivers; and rebuild transit access points. City staff also emphasized traffic improvements through “green wave” traffic lights, a system that syncs several lights to coordinate traffic flow across multiple intersections.

As for the bike lanes, the Council vote included direction to postpone striping the roads until more bike-friendly options could be considered.

Work is expected to begin later this year, and wrap up by fall 2023. City leaders and staff considered the $12 million budget to be a good price for the amount of work being done, though Mayor Teresa Barrett suggested traffic mitigation funds could also be used if needed.

“Just in terms of making our city safe, I really think it’s worth diverting some of our funds,” she said.

Don Frances is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at don.frances@arguscourier.com.

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