Rainier extension environmental report heads to City Council

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A split vote by the Petaluma Planning Commission over a report crucial for construction of a proposed cross-town extension of Rainier Avenue has imbued the latest sense of uncertainty in the long-discussed project, sending no clear recommendation to the Petaluma City Council before a final decision to accept the report later this year.

The commission voted three-to-three on Tuesday in recommending approval of the final environmental impact report for the Rainier Cross-town Connector, a half-mile roadway that would link east and west Petaluma.

While such recommendations to the city council are non-binding, the commission’s role as an early venue for public discussion of high-profile development issues often makes those votes a signal of the debate to come.

The vote was the latest procedural step for a project that has been the subject of talks between Caltrans and the city since 1965. While funding remains an unresolved issue, approval of the required environmental document would clear a significant hurdle for the project to proceed.

The four-lane, .65-mile roadway would connect North McDowell Boulevard and Petaluma Boulevard North, running under Highway 101 and bridging the Petaluma River and the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit tracks. Most cross-town traffic in Petaluma currently funnels to either East Washington Street or Corona Road, creating frequent bottlenecks for drivers, said Olivia Ervin, environmental planner for the city of Petaluma.

“Petaluma is basically divided by Highway 101, the Petaluma River and the SMART corridor,” she said. “The connector would reduce congestion on those other two roads.”

The proposal does not include a new highway interchange long considered part of the connector project, following a 2010 vote by the Petaluma City Council to spin that aspect off as a separate endeavor. The decision streamlined the city’s collaboration with Caltrans to include the undercrossing as part of an existing plan to widen and elevate Highway 101 at the location.

Caltrans agreed in 2011 to integrate the undercrossing as part of the highway project, provided that the city completed the environmental review and funded the design. The current environmental review process kicked off in August 2011.

Cost estimates have varied throughout the years, but the latest projections presented to the City Council in September 2014 showed the city’s share in the full Rainier Cross-town Connector project at over $60 million. Those funds are expected to be generated through regular city impact fees by 2020 — the projected date of completion — and could get a boost if the city succeeds in a current legal challenge to gain access to $7 million in bond funding for the project held by the state after the dissolution of its former redevelopment agency, said City Attorney Eric Danly.

The environmental report outlines several scenarios in which the connector would reduce wait time at various intersections throughout the city, based on projected vehicle volume in 2020. Larger projected benefits for evening commuters include an average of 16 seconds saved at North McDowell Boulevard and Old Redwood Highway and 18 seconds at East Washington Street and Payran, along with smaller benefits like a single second saved on average at the Old Redwood Highway onramp to northbound Highway 101.

Yet some commissioners noted that certain trips would actually be slower due to factors like the creation of a new signal intersection where Rainier would connect with Petaluma Boulevard North. Some also argued that the connector would encourage more vehicle trips, increasing traffic volume.

“All it’s doing is shifting traffic from Washington to new intersections throughout the town,” said Commissioner Jennifer Pierre, who voted “no” on the recommendation. “That’s not relief to me.”

Gina Benedetti-Petnic, another commissioner, disagreed, arguing that the report gave a defensible projection that the vast majority of traffic impacts throughout the city would be positive compared to the expected increase in traffic from population and economic growth in the coming years.

“Yes it’s a shifting of traffic, but I think in terms of the big picture, if that’s what we’re looking at, we’ve improved the big picture,” said Benedetti-Petnic, who voted to recommend the report.

Other contentious issues surrounded any environmental impact the project might have in bridging the Petaluma River and the argument that it would give rise to new development.

Permeating the debate was a sense of urgency that delaying the project’s environmental report would close a window of opportunity with Caltrans, which city staff said could potentially go forward with the highway project without considerations that would make the Rainier connector possible.

Caltrans has said the widening project at the section of Highway 101 through Petaluma is currently on hold due to a lack of funding.

“This is the procedural work to make sure the city doesn’t get left high and dry if the Caltrans project goes forward,” Danly said.

The connector project is considered part of Petaluma’s general plan, a sweeping document that outlines several major infrastructure objectives by 2025. The plan also takes into account the goal of eventually constructing a Rainier interchange, as well as a spur on the western side of the Rainier connector that would connect with Shasta Avenue to accommodate traffic heading south to the city’s downtown.

Both of those projects are currently on the back burner as the city focuses on the connector itself, said Ervin, the environmental manager.

While the environmental report assumes a 30-month construction period would begin in 2017, the timeline is heavily dependent on Caltrans’ own widening and elevation of Highway 101. Staff and commissioners acknowledged that the actual project completion was likely to be at a later date.

A vote by the Petaluma City Council to approve the document could come as soon as late July, said Heather Hines, the city’s planning manager.

The report outlines how the project would address anticipated impacts during and after construction. Those measures include management of the construction process to reduce impact on the river’s riparian habitat and modification of certain interchanges to accommodate new traffic patterns.

Diana Gomez, a commissioner who described herself as the only east side resident on the dais, expressed her overarching support of the project.

“This town needs another way to access Petaluma Boulevard,” she said.

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