Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Urbanist Thinking on the Rainier Avenue Connector

The connection of Rainier Avenue (possible alignment to the right) 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 (


  1. I almost always fully agree with your thoughts and positions, but on the Rainier overpass issue I don't. To my mind, a Rainier connector would be a major mistake. It's a massive construct of concrete and asphalt through the floodplain that would inevitably bring more floodplain development. The State requires 1.1 miles between freeway connectors. This would be well under a mile from E Washington. $90+ million is way beyond where Petaluma's priorities should concentrate its precious dollars. Improve the nearby pedestrian/bike pathway for a pittance instead. Fortunately, I think Rainier is more political posturing than a likely reality, but the never-ending push from the vested interests could turn this folly into an unfortunate reality one day. To my mind, it can't be justified from an urbanist perspective.

    1. Steve, thanks for writing. We seem to have points of both agreement and disagreement.

      In the most significant immediate point, we agree that Petaluma's priorities should be elsewhere.

      And we seem to agree that the continued posturing on Rainier is a meaningless kerfuffle.

      On floodplain development, I'm puzzled by the community comments on this point. As an engineer, I've bumped against Petaluma floodplain standards and found them rigorously enforced, even to the point of absurdity. (Calculating the volume of a fence post in a floodplain is putting way too much faith in the inexact science of flood volume calculation.) I never saw any sign of City laxity on that point. Perhaps people think that the FEMA flood maps are too liberal, but there were few, if any, comments of that sort when the new FEMA maps were recently adopted by the city.

      On the interchange separation standards, I don't see that as an argument against Rainier. One of the more expensive Rainier options addresses the standard by linking the Washington and Rainier interchanges. Or Rainier could be built without an interchange without affecting the urbanist argument.

      Ultimately, I think the difference is in long-term vision. I see the possibility of a Petaluma future in which pockets of walkable density along Petaluma Boulevard North and McDowell Boulevard justify a linkage other than E. Washington and Corona. And it'd be great if it was a transit-heavy linkage. It's not a near-term vision, but it could happen this century. Indeed, I hope it does. I'd be happy if Rainier was part of a 2075 vision for Petaluma. But we have other, far more pressing issues today.

  2. Okay, try #3. Stupid OpenID...

    Anyway, I'm trying to figure out the numbers behind this. A reasonable ballpark for the cost of money is $600/month per hundred grand. That's about what a 30 year fixed mortgage costs, maybe you can get municipal bonds for less, we can talk about opportunity costs, but it's a good back-of-the-envelope. And 30 years is a reasonable time to depreciate infrastructure over, it'll need major maintenance after that time.

    So for a $90 million project, that means $540k/month, or just under $6.5 million a year that the city has to gain for this project to make sense.

    If we call sales tax 10%, that means that this bridge has to lead to $65 million dollars a year in additional sales. If we call property tax 1%, that means that this bridge has to lead to three quarters of a billion dollars in additional property value...

    ...*EXCEPT* that all of that has to be directed back to that one project. So a quick Googling, I'm writing this off-the-cuff and don't want to spend too many hours digging in right now, suggests that the city budget is between thirty and thirty five million a year, and road stuff is about ten percent of that.

    So we can multiply those numbers by ten. And if the Ranier overcrossing really brings another six and a half billion dollars to property values, you'd expect that developers and landowners would be clamoring to pay higher development fees. Or an additional ten thousand dollars a year per Petaluma resident (and $650M is about the annual hospitality and tourism GDP for Sonoma County, and nearly half of the county's retail sector), from a town which can't really be a big-box store destination because of geographical transportation limitations.

    Someone tell me where I'm wrong, because I sure can't see how this makes any sort of sense at all.

    1. Two additions:

      This Petaluma 360 article about questions on the Ranier process suggests that it isn't $90M, but $115M that we're talking about. Which would bring that 6.5 billion in necessary new value up to 8.3.

      It also suggests that the costs will indeed be paid back from development fees. My brain isn't quite up to trying to figure out how to visualize what adding six and a half billion dollars in property values really means. If we just look at that in terms of new houses, the Quarry Heights homes are "Priced from $604,911 - $663,000", so let's call it $650k, that's ten thousand new homes. Except that we're talking additional value, so we have to discount current land values, but that's a reasonable order of magnitude and way to think about what the Ranier overcrossing will need to bring us.

    2. Dan, thanks for the comments. Your analyses are generally good and probably a bit optimistic. To get good road life, periodic maintenance is required during the thirty-year life. That's a cost you haven't included. And City revenue from property tax is well less than 1 percent. So the picture is worse than you estimate.

      But not every project must be justified by new development or other economic activity. Sometimes, a city can decide that a new amenity is required for the livability of the current community, with the taxpayers willing to tax themselves for the cost. For the Rainier connector, I calculate that the cost per household would be about $300 per year, including an allowance for ongoing maintenance. Even in the unlikely event that the taxpayers are willing to fund a cost like this, I'd argue that there are far better places to spend the funds.

      Lastly, we also have the mechanism by which too much infrastructure is built, transfer payments from Sacramento or Washington, D.C. Let's say that the federal government was willing to pay for Rainier as a stimulus measure during a future recession. If that happened, the local community would likely celebrate the new road and the construction jobs, leaving our unborn grandchildren with the problem of funding maintenance and replacement.

      No matter how you look at the situation, there are no good perspectives.

      I still think that Rainier, as a roadway, could be a part of an effectively urban Petaluma. But as a cost to be borne, it just doesn't work.

  3. This is all really interesting stuff Dave, but as you touched on in your other post re: this issue, why is there not more emphasis on pushing for a bridge at the end of Caulfied over to Petaluma south? It doesn't address the North east traffic pattern , but it would be another connector, and presumably take some pressure of E. Washington & D st. Is cost the main objection there ?

    1. I'll bite: Cost is a huge factor, as is geography: That bridge either needs to be a lift/swing bridge (with all of the associated issues we see with D-street), or something like 70' high, which is a difficult height to get based on the location of Petaluma Blvd S. relative to the river.

      Also, there isn't a whole lot of demand: Southern Petaluma is largely residential, so there's not a lot of point to increasing flows between the east and west sides there. Delivering more people on to Lakeville Highway from the Boulevard South rather than D Street doesn't do much to reduce the congestion on Washington, and it's unlikely that people will get up to the shopping centers at Washington and McDowell (and north on McDowell) via McDowell from Lakeville rather than hopping on the freeway.

      And when looking at the costs of congestion... I think the average occupancy for cars runs between 1.2 (commuters) and 1.6. If you figure the average value of those people's time is $30 bucks an hour (just ballparking, passengers in those cars are often kids), that's $.50/minute/car of economic value saved. Tax recovery of that value in transportation dollars is a lot less; if you tax that as sales tax you get about 10%, and then about 10% of that goes to transportation, so about 1%.

      So if you have a rush-hour morning and evening during which those drivers can save 5 minutes, you have $9k worth of economic value per day, which seems like a lot of money, but if money costs about $6k/month per million dollars, and we're only recovering 1% of that value in transportation taxes, that means we're only covering half a million dollars in infrastructure improvements.

      If we assume that we can recoup that value from income taxes, say the 40% level, and we're getting 10% of that for transportation, that still give us a little under eleven grand a month, but that pays for less than $2M in infrastructure.

      And these numbers ignore induced demand. It's unlikely that increasing the number of vehicle trips (keeping trip time flat) between two residential areas will result in a large amount of recoup-able economic value.