Durable Growth, Transportation

Rainier Connector: Why not now?

West end of Rainier Connector alignment

West end of Rainier Connector alignment

In my last post, I wrote about a topic that was to come before the Petaluma City Council on the evening of August 3.  The Council will decide whether the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) for the Rainier Connector, a proposed arterial that would augment the traffic grid in the northwestern quadrant of town, meets the standards for environmental studies under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

In the post, I explained that I was frustrated by two aspects of the decision.  First, I was disappointed that the traffic section of the FEIR relied on older standards that will soon be replaced by legislatively-mandated regulations that will better reflect current thinking on traffic generation and climate change.  While I understood the need to complete the FEIR on the current schedule, it was still frustrating to see Petaluma disregard the best available approach, particularly on climate change.

Second, I thought that the Connector wasn’t yet ripe for construction.  While there is an argument for soon building a small segment of the Connector, the underpass beneath Highway 101 that can be constructed more efficiently if done simultaneously with upcoming freeway widening, my urbanist thinking says that the remainder of the road isn’t needed for years.  However, the inclusion of the entire Connector in the FEIR, and the process that requires the Council to vote the entire FEIR either up or down, precluded that level of nuance in the decision.

I remain comfortable with both of my conclusions.  And yet I judged that, despite my reservations, I would probably vote for the FEIR if I were on the Council, primarily to keep the underpass moving ahead.

However, from comments received, I also understand that I could have also dug deeper into the subject.  It’s a problem which I often encountered in writing this blog.  To my eyes, urbanism is a glorious multi-dimensional quilt with the various elements connecting in weird and wonderful ways, many of which I’m still working to fully grasp.

In a blog post, I focus on a tiny patch of the quilt, trying to explain the pattern to the readers while also sometimes adding a stitch or two of my own.  But at the same time I need to explain how the patch fits into the nearby areas and into the entire pattern.  And I need to do so without consuming the entire length of the post or exhausting the attention span of readers.

It’s a challenge for which my writing skills are often inadequate.  Hence, the occasional need to go back and fill in more detail to what I’ve already written.   This post, and the next one, will be in that mode.

Today, I’ll tackle the question of why building the Connector now would be premature.  It’s a subject on which I’ve written in the past, but I understand that many readers aren’t interested in returning to long ago posts, so I’ll provide an update here.

There are two principal reasons why building the Rainier Connector now would be a mistake.  One is induced traffic.  The other is maintenance.

The theory of induced traffic argues that roads create trips.  I know this seems absurd at first blush, but it really does appear to be true.  Let me ask a pair of questions.  Have you ever thought that you’d like to travel to the other side of your town, but didn’t want to drive in traffic, so deferred your trip until later?  If there was less congestion, perhaps because a new route had just opened, might you change your mind and take the trip now?  I expect that most of us would answer yes to both questions.  Congratulations, that makes all of us participants in induced traffic.

Research has shown that up to half of all new traffic capacity is consumed on the day the ribbon is cut.  And that much of the remaining capacity of consumed over the next decade, even in the absence of new development.

The implication is that congestion relief won’t happen.  Instead congestion will return to current levels over the next decade.  More people may travel between the east and west sides of town before congestion occurs, but that is about the only real benefit for the $90 million project cost.  If the primary motivation for building the Rainier Connector is congestion relief, then it shouldn’t be built.

Furthermore, as congestion reasserts itself, there would be opposition to new development on the grounds of traffic congestion, even though that new development is projected to help pay the debt from the Rainier construction.  It would become a Gordian knot.

And really, the story is even worse than that.  Let me use Friedman’s as an example.  (For those not in the North Bay, Friedman’s is a regional chain analogous to Home Depot or Lowe’s, but better.)

I love the fact that Friedman’s has returned to Petaluma.  Indeed, of the two recently opened Petaluma shopping centers, Friedman’s is the only business that I truly welcomed.

But I also love Rex Hardware in downtown Petaluma, relatively convenient to my home.  Rex is a cozy 90-year-old business that still sells individual screws, my personal measure of a good hardware store.  For most purchases, especially the smaller ones, I go to Rex.  (I’ve already visited there once today.)  Yes, I pay a little more, but I save time and travel costs.  I also have access to folks who give great advice.

But imagine if the Rainier Connector was built, creating a few years in which congestion might be less.  More folks would likely trek across town to Friedman’s, looking to save a few dollars compared to Rex.  Seeing the business loss, Rex might decide to finally close their doors, leaving as the only option a drive across town to Friedman’s, creating yet more traffic as congestion reasserts itself.

And Friedman’s/Rex is only the hardware element of local retail.  Consider all the other retail segments that make up a community and imagine all the additional car trips that would created as the retail options lessen.

Managing congestion means encouraging neighborhood businesses that require few or no driving miles, not building streets that allow people to more easily bypass those businesses.

The maintenance issue relies on a more intuitive argument.  From the day roads are built, they need maintenance.  Upkeep is essential is get good service over the life of the road.  I don’t have a good estimate of the maintenance costs for the Rainier Connector, but at least $100,000 per year seems a reasonable low-end guess.  Petaluma doesn’t have the funds to maintain its current roads.  How does adding $100,000 to a failed bottom line make sense?

I still believe that someday Petaluma will need the Rainier Connector.  The coherency of the traffic grid requires it.  But that someday should be when the town has many more people and the Connector is needed to give those folks logical routes of travel.  Someday isn’t today.

In my next post, I’ll write about what urbanism offers as an alternative to building new arterials.  I’ll offer both a view of the big urbanist picture that applies everywhere and a series of thoughts that apply specifically to the Rainier Connector.

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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