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Community Matters: Is Petaluma’s Rainier connector a political casualty?

It may be time for Petalumans to remind all their elected officials to finally get this job done, either through a petition, a November ballot measure or other means, says Argus-Courier columnist John Burns.|

Despite a historic 2004 vote in which 72% of local voters unequivocally urged the city to “pursue the design, funding and construction of a crosstown connector” at Rainier Avenue linking the east and west sides of town, 18 years later it’s unclear when or even if the project will ever be completed.

First appearing in the city’s long-range planning documents in the mid-1960s, the future roadway is the reason Petaluma Valley Hospital and the Santa Rosa Junior College Petaluma campus were built where they are. Most of the housing and commercial development on Petaluma’s east side over the last several decades was predicated on the Rainier connector being built. So too were the siting of the city’s Police station, the Petaluma Premium Outlets shopping mall and, more recently, the Deer Creek Village shopping center. All this development helped pay for and relied upon Rainier’s eventual construction.

In addition to significantly relieving traffic congestion on the overloaded East Washington Street corridor, the Rainier connector promises an efficient alternative for east side residents to access downtown businesses while conversely helping west side residents more easily get to sports fields, the junior college, shopping and jobs east of the freeway. When future on/off ramps are constructed, commuters will have an easier time getting to and from their jobs outside of town.

Since 2004, city officials have worked to get the job done as voters advised. The ongoing Highway 101 widening project through central Petaluma has helped pave the way for Rainier’s ultimate completion. Last year, the city funded the installation of a $7 million bridge support structure beneath the freeway to enable construction of a 0.65 mile roadway extending Rainier Avenue from McDowell Boulevard to Petaluma Boulevard North.

The project’s environmental reviews have all been approved and city Public Works staffers have worked with contractors on a variety of project tasks including surveying, design, engineering and right-of-way land acquisition. The cost for those services was paid for by traffic impact fees from major housing and commercial developments, including the city’s two newest shopping centers. Such fees are intended as the primary source of funding for traffic relief projects like Rainier. But with the project’s total cost now pegged at $89 million, and only $30 million in available traffic impact funds, other revenue sources must be identified and secured to complete the work.

Potential project funding has long assumed substantial financial contributions from local land owners who will benefit financially when the new roadway unlocks their properties’ development potential. Additional revenues can now be derived from the city’s new Measure U sales tax increase, currently generating about $13.5 million annually while underwriting repair of the city’s dilapidated street system. Public polling has shown that fixing roads and relieving traffic congestion are two of the highest priorities for Petaluma voters, so using some of the tax proceeds for traffic relief makes good sense. State and federal grant monies are an additional source of funding, made stronger by the federal infrastructure legislation approved last year.

But in addition to seeking project funding, why not explore ways to lower the Rainier project’s overall cost? For reasons not entirely clear, the current design of the Rainier project calls for a tall and very expensive bridge to take the roadway over the SMART railroad tracks, but is this really necessary?

Not according to Petaluma City Council member Mike Healy, a longtime advocate for completing the Rainier connector, who says that nowhere else in the North Bay is a bridge required for a city street to cross over the SMART railroad tracks. Instead, cities are permitted to use “at-grade crossings,” a design stipulation that requires safety approvals by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Redesigning the project with an at-grade crossing at the railroad tracks and a much smaller bridge to span the upper reaches of the Petaluma River would cut the project costs significantly, according to Healy, while lessening its impacts on nearby wetlands. An at-grade crossing, incidentally, was exactly what voters asked for in 2004, along with full mitigation of project flooding impacts and the incorporation of bicycle and pedestrian pathways.

It’s certainly an option worth considering, according to City Manager Peggy Flynn, but “direction would need to come from a majority of the City Council before we could pursue that analysis.”

And there’s the rub. For many years the Rainier project was a political football, but when a large majority of voters told their elected officials to stop bickering and get the job done, that should have settled the matter.

It didn’t.

Because four current city council members still oppose the project due to overblown fears over attendant housing development nearby, the city will likely forfeit the opportunity to possibly expedite the project’s construction and save tens of millions of dollars in the process.

Instead, upcoming public workshops in the spring to review crosstown connector projects could likely see the anti-Rainier City Council majority pushing to divert all of the city’s limited traffic impact dollars to extend Caulfield Lane and build a bridge over the river near the southern edge of the city. While the much newer Caulfield connector project would certainly relieve traffic congestion in the southwestern part of the city, it would provide little or no traffic relief for most eastside motorists, particularly those living north of East Washington Street who have been waiting decades for the Rainier connector to arrive.

For 16 years and until the city council election of 2020, Rainier was Petaluma’s No. 1 public works project because traffic modeling data showed it would significantly relieve traffic congestion in the central part of the city and a large majority of voters favored it. Today, and despite the investment of millions of dollars, the project is in danger of being indefinitely postponed or abandoned entirely.

It may be time for Petalumans to remind all their elected officials to finally get this job done, either through a petition, a November ballot measure or other means.

In 10 years, when a large majority of residents here are expected to be using electric cars, they will still need to get to work, go to the grocery store and take their kids to soccer practice without having to sit in endless amounts of traffic. Completion of the Rainier connector would make that possible.

Either that, or we can forever ponder the $7 million dollar bridge support structure to nowhere and wonder why we didn’t demand better from our locally elected representatives.

John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.

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