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[whitespace] Traffic Bumper Cars: Little Railroad Square has big traffic problems, especially at the intersection of Third and Wilson.

Street Fight

Is Railroad Square headed for gridlock?

By Patrick Sullivan

It's a hot August afternoon in Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, and a long, sad parade is growing longer and sadder by the minute. A Ford Explorer leads the way, engine rumbling as its driver waits for a break in on-coming traffic to make a left turn from Wilson Street onto Third Street.

Behind the Explorer wait more than 20 cars in a line that stretches the length of the square, through two stop signs and all the way back to Sixth Street. The Explorer gets an opening and makes its move. Then the light changes, and the driver of the next vehicle settles back to wait for her turn to escape.

"I'm a real patient person, but it makes my blood boil," says Dayna Irvine, who braves the traffic regularly as co-owner of A'Roma Roasters, a Railroad Square coffeehouse.

The problem, according to the city's Traffic Engineering Division, is partly caused by lane closures and signal light changes related to construction of the Vineyard Creek Hotel, Spa, and Conference Center, which opened its doors across the street in June. Traffic officials say the end of construction may bring some relief.

But increased traffic from the 155-room hotel and 15-meeting room conference center is also to blame: the environmental impact report filed for Vineyard Creek estimated that the center would generate more than 3,000 vehicle trips a day. "Any increase of traffic at that level will have an impact," says city traffic engineer Gene Benton.

Of course, there are intersections in Santa Rosa that make Third and Wilson look as peaceful as a country lane. But the current problems around Railroad Square are more than a momentary muddle for one simple reason: ambitious development projects--including a commuter train station and the proposed Sonoma County Food and Wine Center--are poised to turn the historic neighborhood into a major tourist destination and transportation hub.

Some observers see the Vineyard Creek opening as a test case, a chance to see whether city planners can concentrate development in Railroad Square and other downtown areas while averting traffic hell for residents, shoppers, and commuters. So far, as many drivers will tell you, the verdict isn't good.

Residents of the West End neighborhood, which abuts Railroad Square, are particularly concerned. Some of them are casting a skeptical eye on two new projects there.

Construction could begin in 2004 on the Sonoma County Food and Wine Center, a $20 million project west of Railroad Square that would attract an estimated 37,000 shoppers, culinary students, and tourists every week. State and local governments are also moving quickly to reopen the rail line that gave the square its name. A station would be built to service a new commuter train running from Cloverdale to Marin County.

When Food and Wine Center representatives pitched their project at a recent West End Neighborhood Association meeting, many residents expressed strong concern. "You want to bring in all this traffic and these big buildings," exclaimed neighbor Susan Hays. "I really don't need this in my neighborhood."

Other West End residents support the Food and Wine Center as an alternative to less attractive development on the site. And most local merchants, including A'Roma Roaster's Irvine, are excited by the new level of commercial activity in the square.

But Benton, the man charged with ensuring smooth traffic flow in Railroad Square and elsewhere, cautions that resources to deal with traffic problems are stretched thin. As city traffic engineer, Benton oversees movement on Santa Rosa's 528 miles of roadway. The city has the fourth highest number of road miles in the Bay Area and may soon overtake Oakland, which has more than twice Santa Rosa's population. To manage this system, Benton's division has only seven employees--one fewer than back in 1987.

Expanding alternative transportation is crucial, Benton says. That's why planners hope to create a new bike path and more bus routes around Railroad Square.

Will it be enough to avert traffic chaos? Supporters of Railroad Square development express a hopeful but cautious outlook. "I'm really optimistic that we can develop these projects without creating the nightmare that we're all concerned about," says Santa Rosa City Council member Noreen Evans. "But it's going to take intention and creativity."

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From the August 29-September 4, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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