Unrealized after nearly 50 years, Petaluma’s Rainier Avenue cross-town connector is back in the forefront again and shaping up to be a divisive election issue.
Through the decades, Rainier, one of the longest-planned street projects in Petaluma, has suffered from lack of funding and, at times, a lack of political will.
Its configuration has changed over the years, too, and a scaled-down version is being analyzed for its potential environmental impacts.
Much of the community at large has long supported Rainier, according to several polls since the mid-1990s. In 2004, 72 percent of city voters said they backed a Rainier cross-town connector.
Relieving traffic congestion — which supporters promise Rainier will do — also polled strongly in city surveys in the past year about what residents would be willing to increase their sales tax to fund.
The project once was killed, removed by an environmentally friendly council from the city’s general plan in 1999. But it was revived in 2004 after so-called development-friendly council members won a majority.
Today, most of the seven-member council appears to support finding funding for the connector and getting it built.
“At this point you have a strong council majority that has every intention of making it happen,” said Councilman Mike Healy, long a supporter of the project. “It’s not that the Rainier project is without flaws or without issues, but it’s the best alternative.”
Opponents argue the project could cause downstream flooding, won’t solve the town’s traffic problems and actually will cause delays at several other nearby intersections. They say it is an expensive pipe dream and a boondoggle that would open several hundred acres of land to growth for the benefit of developers.
Planning commissioners earlier this month heard a staff presentation on the draft environmental impact report that is being prepared.
“It’s a fairy tale. It was invented to increase the value of those properties,” critic Dave Libchitz told commissioners. “I don’t think it was ever really meant to be built.”
City Council members will hear the report and the public will be able to add its comments at the Sept. 8 council meeting. Once a final EIR is written, the council will vote on whether to certify it, a major hurdle to its being built.
In its current form, the project calls for Rainier Avenue to extend to the southwest from North McDowell Boulevard underneath Highway 101, over the Petaluma River and railroad tracks, and connect to Petaluma Boulevard North.
It is almost three-quarters of a mile with four traffic lanes, a median, bicycle lanes and sidewalks.
Construction could begin as soon as 2017, city environmental planner Olivia Ervin said, but that is dependent on Caltrans’ obtaining funding to pay for Highway 101 widening through that stretch. Caltrans is $90 million short.
The city doesn’t have Rainier’s estimated $88 million cost in hand, either. With redevelopment funding removed by the state, the city would have to cobble together funding from developer impact fees and other sources.
The city has committed about $8.5 million to building the infrastructure beneath Highway 101 that would allow Rainier to be built as Caltrans completes its widening, without requiring 101 to be elevated.
Three large developments promise several million in traffic impact fees that could go toward Rainier — the Target and Friedman’s shopping centers and the recently approved Riverfront mixed-use development, which total about $18 million in traffic fees.