The connection of Rainier Avenue between McDowell Boulevard and Petaluma Boulevard North has long been an item of contention in Petaluma. Much of the political spectrum has supported it, with a handful of notable holdouts. In the most recent City Council elections, every candidate publicly supported its construction, some with more vigor than others. And the public has been consistently, although not unanimously, strong in its support.
But despite thirty years of discussion, the connector hasn’t been built. And that’s largely for one very good reason. With the need to pass under Highway 101 and over the Petaluma River, the Rainier connector is expensive. There are numerous alternative configurations and project elements, all of which have their own price tags, but $90 million is a good round number for finishing the Rainier connector, including an interchange with Highway 101.
And $90 million is a huge chunk of money, nearly three times the current annual budget for all city services.
Despite the cost, Petaluma continues to toy with the possibility of the Rainier connector. Most recently, a draft environmental impact report was delivered to the City Planning Department. Construction funding still seems a remote possibility in the near future, but the Rainier connector remains a hot topic.
With the Rainier connector an on-going topic, it’s reasonable to ponder what an urbanist should view the proposed road. It’s not an easy question to answer.
To begin, the primary rationale for the Rainier connection, traffic congestion relief, can be rejected. It’s the argument that Robert Moses offered to New York City for forty years worth of roadway projects, only to have traffic become increasingly worse.
The problem is induced traffic, the trips that current local residents would have been making for the last few years, but have been deferring because of traffic on E. Washington Street.
Under the theory of induced traffic, the validity of which has been observed in many settings, a newly-opened Rainier connector would likely flow easily for a few months or even a couple of years, but would eventually become just as congested as E. Washington Street, even without any new local residents. (Note: A dramatic increase in the price of gasoline or a vehicle-mileage tax might slow the uptake of new road capacity, but only the first of those seems even remotely possible.)
Simply put, if the Rainier connector was available, a family that has been happily patronizing a Mexican restaurant on their side of town would find a new favorite Mexican restaurant on the far side of town. And they would drive there using the new roadway capacity. As the sales tax revenue from a burrito is the same on either side of town, there would be no net gain to the city, but the primary reason for the Rainier connector would be gradually consumed.
On the pro-Rainier side, cities work best when there is a road grid that allows traffic to find more logical routes around town. In the absence of the Rainier connector, and also of the proposed bridge across the Petaluma River between end of Caulfield Street and Petaluma Boulevard South, the Petaluma traffic pattern looks like an hourglass, with E. Washington Street as the choke point. The Rainier connector would allow more logical routes between destinations.
On other hand, completing the Rainier connector, like many major roadway projects, would likely spur new development. And it seems likely that the development would be drivable suburban rather than walkable urban. If the land along and near the Rainier connector was within the Central Petaluma Specific Plan, I’d feel better about the likely development pattern, but it’s not, at least as of today.
Lastly, the routing of Petaluma Transit is impeded by the absence of a Rainier connection. Especially given the location of the transit yard at the intersection for McDowell Boulevard and Rainier Avenue, a connection to Petaluma Boulevard North would allow more effective routing and less deadhead time at the start and end of shifts.
So, with the traffic relief argument discarded, the balance comes down to improved routing for transit and private vehicles versus the risk of sprawl inducement. It’s a close call, but I’ll come down on the side of improved routing and in favor of the Rainier connector. And I’ll pair that decision with a hope that future City Councils will resist the siren call of sprawl and find a way to make Rainier an urban, not suburban, corridor.
But the decision was close. Given that the net benefits are slight, is the Rainier connector worth $90 million? To me, it’s not. I can point to far better uses of $90 million.
If the infrastructure fairy tapped on my shoulder tomorrow and gave me a check for $90 million, how would I prioritize the dollars? At the top of my list would be infrastructure needed to get urbanist projects, such as the Station Area and North Water Street, underway.
Next, I’d address the deferred maintenance of streets near downtown and other areas of potential walkable development.
Only with those two needs met would I look toward the Rainier connector.
Now, I need to find that infrastructure fairy with the deep pockets.
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at Where Do We Go from Here. He can also be followed on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and VibrantBayArea.