Caltrans plans for summer 2020 start of Highway 174 widening project |

Caltrans plans for summer 2020 start of Highway 174 widening project

John Orona
Staff Writer

Some people fear the picturesque commute down Highway 174, with its lush tree-lined drive and winding views, is being threatened in a saga that some Nevada County residents feel is an example of senseless bureaucracy and government overreach.

The journey began after three highway deaths in the span between 2009 and 2011 triggered a mandatory investigation into potential safety issues on the highway. It appears it’ll end with the widening of a 1.9-mile stretch of road its opponents say will destroy the scenic landscape.

A report generated by the investigation found that the state route was dangerous and recommended a leveling, both vertical and horizontal, as well as widening the lanes to 12 feet, widening the shoulders to 8 feet and adding a 20-foot “clear recovery zone” on both sides of the highway between Maple Way and You Bet Road.

Caltrans currently is finalizing agreements with property owners whose land they had to buy in order to clear trees and make room for the road widening. They expect the purchasing of 32 parcels of land and clearing of 550 trees to be complete by summer 2020, when construction will begin.

According to Caltrans, the changes would make the highway more friendly to bicycle and pedestrian traffic, and give motorists an opportunity to recover from errant driving or pull over in an emergency.

“If there’s an increased incidence in collisions on any of the highways, if we’re seeing lots of collisions or lots of fatalities, it will prompt us to do a safety project,” said Raquel Borrayo, Caltrans District 3 public information officer. “This Highway 174 project is a safety project because we did see a high incidence of run-off road collisions and there was a fatality, so we’re just trying to improve a lot of the curves in that area so they’re not as harsh and people can travel more safely.”


Some county residents believe Caltrans is cherry-picking data and only looking at a narrow time frame that presents an inaccurate picture of the dangers faced on the highway. According to the group Save Hwy 174, a coalition of county residents and affected property owners opposing the project, when examining a 12-year period between 2005 and 2017, the highway is no more dangerous than average.

The group says although the highway can be dangerous, the agency’s concerns are misplaced.

“No one wants it stopped,” said Phil Carville, a member of the group. “We just want it more community-focused and to actually make sense.”

The group said the more than $28 million price tag for the project would be better used for many small projects to mitigate safety issues up and down the entire highway, instead of just the 1.9-mile section Caltrans is working on.

From the state’s perspective, Caltrans was obligated to do something to mitigate the risk, once the report determined the stretch of roadway wasn’t safe. Otherwise it would be liable for any additional injuries or deaths.

While originally the Nevada County Board of Supervisors felt the state was not being responsive to community needs, passing a 2017 resolution to that effect, District 1 Supervisor Heidi Hall, whose district includes the project, feels it’s been more accommodating as dialogue has increased.

“We’ve been very engaged with Caltrans and the Save Hwy 174 group, and we’ve gotten them to make significant changes,” Hall said. “It’s not as much as we would like and not as much as some of my constituents would like, but we have gotten them to move off their original plan. We have no formal authority to make them do anything and that’s important, but I know it’s not going to be enough to please everyone.”

Despite public concerns that the state agency is not listening, in the last Nevada County Transportation Commission meeting, Caltrans was able to address the group’s concerns that were outlined in the board resolution, such as not widening the road as much as originally proposed and doing away with an overhead light on one of the intersections.

“They did add last minute a whole bunch of things they never intimated they would that the group had been asking for years,” Carville said. “They addressed point by point everything that was made in the Board of Supervisors resolution, but it took them basically two years to do it. For the first time, they actually made a halfway decent presentation.”

Contact Staff Writer John Orona at or call 530-477-4229.

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