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Keep focus on Rainier connector

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With one decision this month, the most controversial project in recent Petaluma history went from hypothetical to reality. The awarding of $85 million in state gas tax funds to widen Highway 101 through Petaluma removes the biggest excuse for inaction on the Rainier crosstown connector.

For decades, the roadway project that was meant to unite Petaluma has done just the opposite, causing stark divisions among local politicians who have either fought to build Rainier or fought against it. But, when asked to produce this mythical road, leaders have always pleaded paralysis — no work can be done until Caltrans widens the freeway, leaving room for a Rainier underpass.

Well, Caltrans finally has the money in hand to complete the long delayed highway project, so it’s time to focus on building Rainier. Supporters of the project see it as a magic bullet to fix all of Petaluma’s traffic woes. While it probably will not solve all of our traffic troubles, having another way to get across town certainly will take the burden off of the city’s other crosstown streets, especially East Washington Street.

First planned in 1965, the roadway is included in the city’s General Plan, a guideline for city development that makes certain assumptions about future growth, including that Rainier will one day be built. Petaluma Valley Hospital, the Deer Creek shopping Center, the Petaluma Police station and the Petaluma Outlet mall were all located at either end of the future Rainier extension in anticipation that future drivers would use the road to access those facilities.

Rainier’s detractors fear that the roadway will open up land for unwanted development. This is only partly true. Rainier indeed will open up dozens of acres for development, but if carefully planned, these projects will not only be wanted but badly needed.

Think of the land that fronts the west side of Highway 101 just south of the outlet mall. This property, within earshot of the freeway, is not exactly pristine wilderness. The section near the Petaluma River, with no public access trails, has become rife with homeless camps.

Once Rainier is built, giving street access to some 64 acres already zoned for desperately needed housing, Petaluma’s deliberative planning process could concoct a development that suits the city’s needs. Imagine a development akin to the Payran neighborhood on the land closest to the freeway and out of the floodplain, and a series of hiking trails that the developer pays for along the river. It’s a win-win, made possible by Rainier.

There are certainly challenges ahead for Rainier, and it will take much more political will to see the project to fruition. For starters, the city has only about a third of the $61 million that the .65-mile roadway will cost. Once Caltrans finishes widening the highway in 2022 and construction on Rainier can begin in earnest, the city’s traffic impact fees, paid for by developers, should have about half of the needed money.

This assumes that politicians don’t become impatient and spend the traffic impact fees on a different project first. The rest of the money for Rainier should come from the developers of the land along the future roadway. Right now, since the land has no road access, its value is a fraction of what it would be once cars can reach it. Developers who stand to make millions off of future projects along Rainier should pay the balance of the project’s cost.

Back in 2004, 72 percent of Petaluma voters supported Rainier in a ballot measure. Given that traffic has only become worse in the past 14 years, Rainier would likely have at least as much if not more support today. In the next four years, our city leaders will be making decisions that could actually lead to the project getting built.

Now that Caltrans is doing it’s part, there is no more excuse for inaction. It’s time to build Rainier.