When Steve Castleberry arrived in town more than six years ago, he looked at the 2007 Nevada County Bicycle Master Plan – then the most recent update available – and gulped.
“There were a gazillion projects; it was really unfocused,” said Castleberry, the county’s public works director. “We didn’t have a ton of money to spend on bike path upgrades; it wasn’t clear which were top priority.”
After polling local bicycle groups and people such as Nevada City Bicycle Classic guru Duane Strawser, Castleberry came up with a short list of one: Newtown Road.
“The perception was that, of all the places people ride, that one felt the least safe,” Castleberry said.
“There’s no shoulder, and a lot of hills, so bikers have to go slow, and if the cars behind them try to pass, there are blind spots and no place for the cars to get around.”
Now, six painful years later and one year after the latest Bicycle Master Plan update was approved in July 2013, Castleberry’s and the bicycle community’s dream of improving Newtown Road is looking to become a reality.
Nevada County has been awarded an $800,000 federal Congestion Management Air Quality allocation to widen a short stretch of Newtown Road between Highway 49 and Champion Mine Road.
The widening will improve a particularly gnarly stretch of the popular 15-mile “Greg LeMond” bike loop, which travels along Newtown, Bitney Springs and Ridge roads to Nevada City Highway.
“We’re adding a 4-foot shoulder,” Castleberry said. “It’s relatively expensive because we had to buy strips of property to acquire the rights of way.”
The county public works crews are also doing “spot” widening at certain sections of Newtown Road where the shoulder is narrow.
The Newtown Road project, scheduled for completion in 2015, is part of a new wave of “active transportation” funding catching traction in both public and private sectors in Nevada County and statewide.
The support is not just for bike lanes, but also for pedestrian walkways and running trails, or anything that makes it safer to travel outdoors for recreation or commuting.
“Our goal is to get safer options,” said Strawser, a Nevada City councilman and former bike racer who owns Tour of Nevada City bike shop on Sacramento Street in Nevada City.
“A lot of people are afraid to get out there and ride bikes and lose weight and get in shape because of the skinny roads and the traffic.”
The tragic death four years ago February of popular cyclist Jim Rogers – struck from the rear in Grass Valley by a Highway 174 motorist in a Ford Expedition who claimed she never saw Rogers or his bike – highlighted the need for better road shoulders and bike safety.
At the same time, some bike advocates, such as Chris Kelly of Kelly Bike Company custom bikes in Nevada City, say no amount of spacious bike lanes will help if drivers continue to text or talk on cell phones while driving.
“You can have the safest bike lanes in the world, but it doesn’t matter if someone is texting and just plows into you,” he said.
Even worse, Kelly added, is that some drivers have an attitude toward cyclists and don’t care to share the road with them.
“It’s safer to ride a bike in Oakland than it is in Nevada County,” said Kelly. “Some people in cars up here are looking to discipline someone on a bike, and if you’re only a foot away, it can happen to the nicest bicyclist.”
Some locals who love to ride said they stay safe by keeping mostly on mountain bikes and off-the- road trails.
“I only use my road bike on the back roads,” said Chip Close, operations manager at Nevada Irrigation District. “The cars scare me.”
Close said he lives near Empire Mine (State Historic Park in Grass Valley), which is rich in the fat tire department.
“I get home, I jump on my mountain bike, and I ride at Empire Mine,” he said. “It’s close, it’s nicely groomed trails, not a lot of people – and no cars.”
Elected officials say they’re doing the best they can to upgrade area roadways that were not built with bicycles in mind.
“This is an old community,” said Grass Valley Mayor Dan Miller. “The streets were not constructed back then with bike paths.
“Now, the need is there, and we will have to find room,” he added. “We’ll build them as we go.”
Meanwhile, along with Newtown Road, the county and its cities have a small handful of other bike lane or trail improvements either in the pipeline or already completed.
— Hughes Road in Grass Valley. Bike lanes already added.
— Highway 49 between The Willows Restaurant and Old Downieville Road, widening shoulder. (Caltrans, with help from Nevada County, has it scheduled to start this fall and be completed in 2015)
— A new off-road bike trail built by local nonprofits from Highway 20 to Scotts Flat Lake.
— Highway 49 from Champion Mine Road to Empress. County crews will be doing spot widening this year.
In addition, on Aug. 20, Nevada County transportation officials expect to hear about awards from the first funding cycle in a new state Active Transportation Program signed into law Sept. 26, 2013 by Gov. Jerry Brown.
The ATP, this year allotted $119 million statewide, merges previously diverse funding pools for bicycle, pedestrian, and school-children-safety-focused road improvements.
According to Nevada County Transportation Commission Executive Director Dan Landon, Nevada County is competing in ATP’s“small urban” category, which has a pool of $11.9 million.
Projects applied for and under review pending notice on Aug. 20 are:
— $770,458 for various bicycle improvements at a dozen or more locations throughout the city of Grass Valley. Affected streets include Sierra College Drive, Morgan Ranch Drive, East Main Street, Courtney Road and Ridge Road.
— $1.42 million for Safe Routes to Schools projects at five public schools: Nevada Union High School; Silver Springs High School; Grass Valley Charter School; Bell Hill Academy; and Bitney College Prep High School.
These are mostly pedestrian improvements.
— $827,000 for curb ramps and accessible pedestrian signals in Grass Valley at eight intersections: Morgan Ranch Drive at Ridge Road, Nevada City Highway at Gates Place, Brunswick Road at Nevada City Highway, Brunswick Road at Sutton Way, East Main Street at Dorsey Drive, Hughes Road and Bennett Street, East and West Main Street at North and South Auburn streets.
— $991,712 for sidewalk improvements in Grass Valley at numerous locations.
— $1.9 million for Trout Creek Trail Phase 2 in Truckee.
— $2.09 million for the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway section from Hirschdale to Floriston in the Truckee-Donner area.
To contact Staff Writer Keri Brenner, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4239.