Parking or bike lanes? Petaluma’s road diet dilemma

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Petaluma’s next big street project is still several years away, but it is already generating some controversy.

Still in the design phase, a so-called road diet project to reduce Petaluma Boulevard South from four to two lanes of traffic has put business owners worried about losing parking spaces against bicycle advocates, who want more protected bike lanes.

The city council took the latest step last week, signing an agreement to receive preliminary federal funding for a project expected to total $3.3 million. The Metropolitan Transportation Commission in 2017 awarded Petaluma grant funding for the project.

The project would transform a 1.1-mile stretch of Petaluma Boulevard South from E Street to Crystal Lane. There would be one traffic lane in each direction with a center turning lane, bike lanes and some street parking. Between G Street and Mountain View Avenue, one proposal would remove parking from the north side of the street to accommodate a bike lane.

“We’re still very much in the preliminary design phase of this,” said Jeff Stutsman, senior civil engineer for the city. “We’re still meeting with groups such as Urban Chat, PBAC (Pedestrian and Bicycle Advisory Committee) and presenting design options.”

Business owners along the stretch of Petaluma Boulevard were initially supportive of the plan, after being told they would not lose their parking spaces, according to Patricia Tuttle Brown, who owns an acupuncture business on the boulevard. She said that she rallied her fellow business owners to support the road diet, and now feels like there hasn’t been enough outreach as the design takes shape.

“I myself live and work on that street. But my prime concern is not that I personally might lose on-street parking — although every day it is used, if not by me then by the Metro Hotel, people stopping to use their cell phones, neighbors in a multi-family dwellings, etc.,” she wrote. “It is rather that the businesses which pledged road diet support in my presence would feel personally double-crossed.”

Supporters of road diet projects say they calm traffic and make for a safer, more pedestrian-friendly roadway. The proposal would also include repaving of the road. It follows work already completed to narrow Petaluma Boulevard from E Street to Lakeville Highway.

The segment of Petaluma Boulevard, a frequently-traveled gateway to downtown from Highway 101, has been the scene of many sideswipes and lost rearview mirrors as current parking spaces are close to the lanes of travel, according to road diet advocates.

Cyclists, too, want to see more protected bike lanes. One proposal would add a so-called Class IV bikeway, which is a bike lane separated from traffic by a barrier.

“One of the things that came out of (the PBAC meeting) is this Class IV bike lane,” Stutsman said. “One of the things people have been pushing for there is room to make something like that happen.”

Petaluma Boulevard South is listed as the configuration for the SMART bike path, which follows the train tracks for much of the route from Santa Rosa until Lakeville Street in Petaluma. From there, the path takes bike lanes on streets through the city, eventually linking to a new frontage road along Highway 101. The pathway reconnects with the train tracks in Novato.

City council members said safe bike access along this route is important to the road diet.

“I really do want to see protected bike lanes as part of this project,” Councilwoman Kathy Miller said. “If we are going to tell people that we want them out of their cars, and we want them riding their bikes, we have to make sure they feel safe doing that.”

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer asked staff if it would be possible to use some of the sidewalk space to create a new bike lane. Stutsman said that is something that could be explored.

Councilman Kevin McDonnell said that cyclists will still use the route even if there are no bike lanes. Several Petaluma streets have Class III bike lanes, which as essentially streets marked with so-called bike route sharrows. He urged the city to consider bike safety.

“When people ask about how to reduce traffic, I think we have to say if you make it easy for people to not drive their car, then traffic will get better,” he said. “I appreciate having that dedicated bike lane, but I think we all need to remember that bikes will still use the major lanes.”

Dave Alden, a founder of the Urban Chat development forum, said the road diet project will be discussed at an Aug. 28 Know Before You Grow meeting.

“The project will much better position the city to be a walkable, bikeable, climate-friendly city in the future,” he said.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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