Durable Growth, Transportation

Rainier Connector: What are the urbanist alternatives?

Stub at the east end of the Rainier Connector

Stub at the east end of the Rainier Connector

My last two posts have been about the Rainier Connector, a long-planned but still controversial arterial in the northwest quadrant of Petaluma.  Although the Connector is specific to Petaluma, it offers insights that have universal application.

I’d truly planned for today to be my last post, at least for awhile, on the Rainier Connector.  But, as is often the case, I found too many angles of the story that fascinated me, grew verbose, and still have one more aspect of the situation to explore.  I’ll touch upon that final perspective in my next post and then truly let this subject rest for awhile.

In my last two posts, I’ve written about the upcoming hearing in front of the Petaluma City Council on the Final Environment Impact Report (FEIR) for the Connector, grumbling that a yes/no decision didn’t capture the complexities of either the environmental review process or the roadway alternatives.  And then I wrote about why, although I think the Rainier Connector has a place in Petaluma’s future, I don’t believe that the time for its construction has yet come.

While I’ve been chewing on the roadway project, the City Council certified the FEIR on a vote of 5-2.  Of the five in the majority, all noted the traffic relief benefits.  One of those on the other side acknowledged the traffic relief, but argued that the benefits failed to outweigh the costs.  The other argued that the extent of the traffic benefits would be uncertain until Caltrans makes a decision about whether to build a new interchange to serve the Connector and that he couldn’t support the project with that uncertainty hanging over it.

Not one Councilmember noted that the traffic relief, if that term is understood to mean reduced traffic congestion, would be fleeting and soon consumed by induced traffic.  The omission was particularly notable because updated standards based on that point have been approved by the State Legislature and are currently in the rule-making process.  Nor did any Councilmember note the greenhouse gas emission impacts of new roads, which will also be incorporated in the new state standards.

I could have been disheartened that the entire Council of my town is lagging behind the State Legislature in understanding the new realities of traffic.  But I don’t think that would have been fair.  I suspect that some of the Councilmembers have an inkling of the evolving understanding of traffic, but judged that this wasn’t the time to take a stand.  And I believe that the others are bright, intelligent people for whom the penny will soon drop.  So, I’ll maintain a positive attitude and keep plugging away.

For today, that means looking at what urbanism can offer in place of new arterials.

There was an interesting moment during the hearing when the mayor asked what other traffic relief options could have instead been pursued with the $90 million estimated project cost.  Planning staff was quick to respond, correctly so, that their charge had been the Rainier Connector, not the broader range of options to which the mayor alluded.  But the question still opened a door to insightful ruminations.

I suspect the mayor was thinking of alternative road projects, but I’ll open the field of consideration even further.

A few years back, I was involved in a pair of North Bay urban mixed-use projects.  The projects would have brought 300 residential units downtown.  But the city required construction of a broad boulevard as an element of the projects.  While the boulevard would have served the projects, it would also have met larger city goals of beautification and function.  And those larger goals, which carried a price tag of perhaps $4 million, were crushing the projects, both of which eventually failed.

At the time, one of the developers at the time argued that a city contribution of $2 million toward the boulevard costs would have been sufficient to get the projects underway.  But to be conservative, let’s assume that the city would have needed to carry the full cost of $4 million for the projects to proceed.  Doing the division, that would have been a cost of approximately $13,000 per unit for new residential units to be built downtown rather than in drivable settings.

Using that same unit cost for the entire $90 million cost of the Rainier Connector would bring downtown the next 6,750 residential units to be built in Petaluma.  If we make the assumption that average daily trips per home in a richly urbanized downtown is reduced from ten trips per day, the typical value used for estimating traffic, to six trips per day, which is achievable, the total of daily trips that would be removed from city streets would have been 27,000.  That’s a significant number.

Barring a lot more study, I don’t know whether removing 27,000 trips from Petaluma streets would have the same traffic impacts as building the Rainier Connector.  But as the reduced trips are permanent, and not subject to being consumed by induced traffic, I suspect that the 27,000 would have a greater impact on improving traffic.  And that’s before considering the reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, this quick analysis doesn’t consider a number of other factors, including whether there are places for 6,750 downtown residences in Petaluma and whether funding $13,000 of infrastructure per unit is sufficient to incentivize a private investment of perhaps $200,000 per unit.  But as a simple overview, it points toward areas of further study.

Some many even argue that cities shouldn’t be spending public funds to incentivize private developers, but after 70 years of subsidizing the cost of gasoline and roads to facilitate drivable suburbia, it’s a rather baseless argument.

Of course, all of this speculation is about a long-term vision of what urbanism can offer.  It’s the perspective that should be most important in formulating our cities, but I understand that many will ask for more immediate benefits.  I also have some thoughts on that subject, which I’ll offer in my next post.  After which I promise to leave the Rainier Connector alone for awhile.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

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 http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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