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.