Support for Rainier extension despite funding gap

A majority of the Petaluma City Council wants to move forward with the Rainier crosstown connector, despite its $80 million price tag.|

The Rainier crosstown connector will cost the city of Petaluma nearly $80 million, according to the latest estimate.

The city has already invested $13 million in the initial phases of the roadway, and estimates show it would need an additional $66.4 million to extend Rainier Avenue across Highway 101, the SMART tracks and the Petaluma River.

The figure provides a stark look at the project’s financial reality, and it is the most detailed cost estimate since the Petaluma City Council approved the project’s environmental report in 2015. At that time, the .65-mile extension was projected to cost $61 million.

The crosstown connector has long been a controversial issue in Petaluma. Proponents argue it will provide traffic relief and an alternative route to link McDowell Boulevard and Petaluma Boulevard, while opponents say it is expensive, unnecessary and planned solely to open up land for new development.

At a Monday workshop dedicated to discussing crosstown connectors, the city council remained divided, with at least four of the seven members urging city staff to proceed with plans for Rainier.

The council also discussed building a drawbridge over the Petaluma River linking Caulfield Lane with Petaluma Boulevard South. The so-called southern crossing project was said to cost $29.8 million, down from a previous estimate of $60 million, according to a staff report.

City staff also presented a wish list of improvements to the Lynch Creek Trail, including pavement repairs and lighting. Total upgrades to the crosstown pedestrian and bike path would cost between $1.1 and $2.3 million, according to the report.

While a near unanimous council recommended moving forward with the Caulfield and Lynch Creek Trail projects, only council members Mike Healy, Gabe Kearney, Kathy Miller and Dave King supported advancing the Rainier project.

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer signaled a desire to stop the project altogether while Mayor Teresa Barrett questioned whether the city would ever have the money to pay for the Rainier extension.

Councilman Kevin McDonnell said he wanted to see a more detailed traffic study and funding plan. But the first-term councilman said he was glad to participate in the discussion.

“There just hasn’t been enough public discussion about what’s going on with crosstown connectors, and now it starts,” he said. “Hoorah, we actually had a conversation in public about Rainier, so that’s a fabulous first step forward.”

The Rainier extension would start at the Deer Creek shopping center and go under Highway 101 at a new underpass that Caltrans plans to add with a highway widening project set to kick off next month and wrap up in 2022. The city spent $7 million to have Caltrans build the underpass structure.

Plans show the road going over the train tracks and river on a new bridge and connecting to Petaluma Boulevard North.

The project was first identified in 1965. Caltrans and the city planned for a freeway interchange at Rainier Avenue in the 1980s, and the city certified an environmental report for the project in 1994. Then, in 1999, a city council opposed to development in the area removed Rainier from the city’s General Plan, a controversial move that was subsequently overturned in 2004.

Also in 2004, 72 percent of voters backed an advisory ballot measure supporting the construction of Rainier.

In 2006, Caltrans informed Petaluma officials that the Highway 101 interchange portion of the project did not meet minimum spacing requirements because it was less than a mile from the interchange at East Washington Street and would need a special exemption.

The city council in January 2010 voted to separate Rainier into two projects - the crosstown connector and the interchange - in order to work on the roadway extension first.

The staff report said Petaluma currently has $22.7 million in uncommitted traffic impact fees, which are paid by developers to offset the impact of their projects. Building the Rainier extension would open up some 100 acres of land for development between the freeway and the river, which is expected to generate $27 million in impact fees, according to the report.

Healy disputed that figure, though, saying that development already approved or under construction would provide $27 million in fees, not including land adjacent to the Rainier extension. That land, Healy said, is zoned for residential development and could help Petaluma address its housing crisis without growing the city beyond its current borders.

“I just want to connect a couple of dots that people don’t normally connect,” he said. “There’s huge support in this community for maintaining our urban growth boundary. That’s not going to happen if we take residentially zoned land and make it unavailable. That’s what Rainier will help to access.”

The most vocal opponent of Rainier on the dais was Fischer, who was elected in 2018. She said she only herd from one constituent on the campaign trail that was adamant about building the roadway. She said she favored funneling money for Rainier to transit and cycling projects instead.

“We just declared a climate emergency,” she said. “When we look at what our future is going to look like, it needs to look very different than it does today.”

Kearney, who lives on the east side of Petaluma, said both Rainier and Caulfield would offer alternative ways to get across town for east side residents trying to get downtown. He said the city can achieve both projects.

“I don’t think that we have to say that one or the other is going to be the top priority,” he said. “I think there is a path forward that we can get both of these projects accomplished.”

Mayor Barrett, who voted against the Rainier environmental report as a councilwoman, said Petaluma residents want traffic relief, but are not willing to foot the hefty bill for Rainier. She said her main issue with Rainier is that it would not provide the purported traffic relief.

“I think traffic relief is needed in this town, but I don’t think the Rainier crosstown connector is going to do that,” she said.

She also questioned whether the city could collect enough impact fees to build Rainier before the General Plan expires in 2025.

“It’s clear to me that the money is not there now and in the six years that we have until the end of this General Plan, there will not be enough money collected in order to build this,” she said. “We have been using Rainier as a mitigation for our development ... It has not happened and it is not going to happen within the life of this General Plan, which basically makes our General Plan an illegal document.”

Miller said she wanted to see the Lynch Creek Trail improvements fast tracked first. King said he disagreed with Fischer, saying that a majority of his constituents think Rainier is the most important issue in Petaluma.

Several members of the public spoke about the various projects. Former Councilman David Keller said the Rainier project is a gift to developers that was never about traffic relief. Former Councilwoman Janice Cader-Thompson said the council should also discuss making improvements to the Corona Road overpass.

(Contact Matt Brown at

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