By LORI A. CARTER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Over the concerns of downtown Petaluma merchants, the City Council has affirmed its support — though just barely — for reducing the number of traffic lanes through the heart of the downtown shopping district.
The council, on a 4-3 vote at this week’s meeting, approved a revised spending plan for a so-called “road diet” for Petaluma Boulevard South.
The diet would reduce the main thoroughfare from four traffic lanes, two in each direction, to one lane in each direction with a continuous turn-lane in between. The reconfiguration would widen all lanes, leave more space for parallel parking and bicycles, and cut down the distance pedestrians would be vulnerable to cars, said Larry Zimmer, the city’s capital improvements manager.
The project was narrowly approved last year with a different council makeup. The issue returned to the council Monday to approve a change in the way the city’s $200,000 portion of the $900,000 project would be spent.
Representatives of downtown businesses asked the city to hold off on recommitting to the project until their input was sought and their concerns could be resolved.
Jeff Mayne, speaking on behalf of the Petaluma Downtown Association, said more than half of its members felt they didn’t have enough information to weigh in on the project. Of those that did, 60 percent of them were opposed to it, citing traffic and parking concerns.
Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said similar fears expressed before a 2008 diet on the northern portion of Petaluma Boulevard from East Washington Street to Lakeville Street proved unfounded.
“We’re obviously disappointed in the outcome,” Mayne said Thursday. “There’s been a history of the council doing whatever it wants and letting us know what it’s doing, as opposed to allowing us to have input.”
Mayne said the northern portion of the boulevard is not as business-dense as the southern portion, which includes a bustling few blocks with more retail shops, restaurants, bars and the movie theater.
Current lane widths are about 9½ feet, with parallel-parking lanes about 6 to 7 feet. The diet would widen lanes to about 12 feet and parking lanes would be about 8 feet wide.
Councilwoman Tiffany Renee applauded the anticipated safety benefits of wider lanes for bicyclists and pedestrians. Zimmer said collisions are expected to be reduced by 35 percent with the new configuration.
But many merchants believe the reduction of lanes could throttle the flow so much as to make motorists — and therefore shoppers — avoid the area altogether.
City traffic studies of Petaluma Boulevard North show a decrease in collisions, from 20 to 9, after the lane reconfiguration, and that traffic volume remained the same.
Mayor David Glass and Chris Albertson voted with Barrett and Renee to approve the revised spending plan. Councilmen Mike Harris, Mike Healy and Gabe Kearney opposed it.
“A lot of the support is based more on wishful thinking than analysis” of the problems, Healy said.
Harris said he would rather spend the $200,000 for road repairs than on a new project.
“It’s just not something we can afford now,” he said. “It was nice to have, but to me the match portion that is necessary in this grant can be used for more essential projects.”
The project is slated for construction from summer to fall of 2012.