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Laugh, cry or get angry

Jack Balshaw 4/2/2003


The Washington/McDowell intersection work is finally complete. It's beautiful but I don't know whether to laugh, cry or be angry.

For the laughter part, you have to recall that this project was designed during the period when we had a five person environmental majority on the council. These were people fine-tuned to the nuances of the environment. Not just air pollution but aesthetics and alternate transportation, in this instance pedestrians and bicycles.

So what did we end up with? A pedestrian friendly, bicycle accessible and heavily landscaped congested intersection. My laughter however is with the concept of providing planter benches to sit on and view the traffic. Here we have the most heavily used intersection in town, with no doubt an extremely high level of exhaust fumes, and it's designed and built at high cost to encourage people to stop and sit in these fumes.

These aren't simple concrete benches. These are planter seats surrounded by fancy columns, landscaping and plantings. I'm not sure why they expected anyone would view these seats as an aesthetic and healthy place to rest. I hope the beauty of the setting doesn't entice motorists to take their eyes off the road.

I want to cry for the way money was wasted on this project. The above planter seats and the surrounding stone and woodwork probably cost the city more than $800,000 when design, inspection, right-of-way, overhead, etc. are taken into consideration. I dread the thought of the stone work being spray painted with grafitti.

Significant expense was added to the project for the widening of Washington to accommodate bike lanes. Note that there are no more lanes on Washington than before this project was built, just a short bike lane on each side. As a matter of fact, the right turn lane from Washington west bound to McDowell north bound has been removed to allow for a 100-foot long bike lane. So, we actually have one less lane on Washington now that this project is completed.

It might be delightful to add all these whistles and bells to a project to provide more than a utilitarian improvement. But when money to do basic street maintenance is not available, utility rather than appearance might be a better choice. One of my engineering professors defined an engineer as someone who could do for a dollar what any damn fool could do for two. It doesn't look like an engineer designed this project.

I also have anger related to this project. First of all, this was sold as an alternative to another cross-town connector. This was going to make it unnecessary to construct Rainier. Let's realize now that this is and will be as good as it gets regarding traffic improvements for cross town traffic unless Rainier is resurrected as an additional relief route.

Under the best-case scenario, growing at one-fourth our historic rate, Petaluma will add 10,000 people during the next General Plan cycle. Most will be using Washington St. for some of their trips. Many trips will originate from the present Kenilworth Jr. High area and the fairgrounds. These trips will heavily impact the Washington/ McDowell intersection. Traffic congestion there will only increase. Again, today, traffic at this intersection is as good as it will ever be.

I'm most upset that the "promise" of this project was the excuse for that environmental council to kill the Rainier project. This served to increase the difficulty of ever building Rainier. Now these same people will say, "Look how Rainier's costs have increased". They'll point out that the estimated costs have risen from $13 million to over $40 million. Strange when the cost of the flood fix, which they supported, went from $13 to $38 million no one got upset. When the cost of our new sewer plant, which they championed, ballooned from $24 to $88 million no one got upset.

Let's hope our present council will stick to the basics when developing a street repair and construction program and not get diverted by whistles and bells or phony enviromental concerns.


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