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Getting the job done on Rainier

Twenty years ago, the City of Petaluma committed what is arguably its worst policy error in recent memory: a five-member city council majority voted to remove the long-planned Rainier crosstown connector and interchange from the city’s General Plan. That single vote doomed city residents to two decades of avoidable traffic congestion and raised the price tag of this vital infrastructure project by many millions of dollars.

By 2004, after the consequences of the council’s ill-advised policy change were fully understood, voters had had enough. In an advisory ballot measure drafted by Councilman Mike Healy, a whopping 72% of Petaluma voters told city officials to “pursue the design, environmental analysis, funding and construction of a crosstown connector and interchange” linking the east and west sides of town.

First introduced into 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. So too were the Petaluma Premium Outlets shopping center, the city’s police station and, more recently, the Deer Creek Village shopping center.

In addition to significantly relieving traffic congestion on the busy East Washington Street corridor, the Rainier connector will provide 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 a future interchange is eventually constructed, commuters will have an easier time getting to and from their jobs outside of town.

Since that historic 2004 public referendum, city officials have worked tirelessly to get the job done as voters directed. Despite ongoing funding shortfalls, the Great Recession and the intermittent wavering support by some city council members, the recent commencement of the Highway 101 widening project through central Petaluma has literally paved the way to Rainier’s ultimate completion. Next year, the city will install a $7 million box culvert bridge support structure beneath the freeway to enable the road to pass through.

The project’s environmental reviews have all been approved and public works staffers are currently working with contractors on a variety of project tasks including surveying, design, engineering and right-of-way land acquisition. The costs for those services are being paid by traffic impact fees from major developments, including the city’s two newest shopping centers.

But more money is needed to finish the project and that should rightfully include contributions from landowners who will benefit financially when the future roadway unlocks their properties’ development potential.

Just such an opportunity arose last month. Thanks to quick thinking by council members Mike Healy, Kathy Miller and Dave King, a time-sensitive public hearing was arranged with a prospective housing developer willing to help pay for a portion of the road’s construction costs.

A majority of Petaluma City Council members subsequently directed staff to work with Warmington Residential to forge a deal that would trade key pieces of infrastructure for incentives to make the company’s proposed 148-unit housing project behind the Marin Sun Farms slaughterhouse financially feasible.

Warmington has proposed to build a portion of the future crosstown connector in exchange for a break on the development’s traffic impact fees. The right-of-way alone for the western portion of Rainier and an adjacent storm detention basin is estimated to cost $4.4 million, so negotiations between the city and the developer make perfect sense.

As with any large public improvement project, especially one as costly and complex as Rainier, political will is a vital component to sustain momentum. Unfortunately, the council’s authorization to negotiate with Warmington was not supported by all council members, including one who is relatively new to town and appears to lack the requisite appreciation for her constituents’ overwhelming support to build the crosstown connector.

Thankfully, council members like Kathy Miller remain firmly committed to the cause. A director on the Sonoma County Transportation Authority representing Petaluma since 2015, Miller told me this week that a planned extension of Measure M, the countywide quarter-cent sales tax approved in 2004 that made possible the widening of Highway 101, would generate revenues primarily for rebuilding and resurfacing dilapidated county and city roads.

If approved by voters in November of 2020, Miller said the renewed transportation measure could also potentially include monies to complete the Rainier connector. She is advocating for just that, and said she looks forward to seeing the measure’s proposed allocations at a meeting next month.

Standing in stark contrast to Miller’s commitment are the ongoing protestations of former City Council member Janice Cader-Thompson, a longtime Rainier opponent who is working overtime to thwart the will of the voters, most recently by voicing disapproval of the negotiations authorized by the city council with Warmington that could help get the roadway built.

It should not be overlooked that Cader-Thompson was one of the five council members whose misbegotten vote in 1999 added significant additional costs to and delays for a popular transportation project aimed at relieving Petaluma’s traffic congestion.

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

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