Highway 49 project to relieve bottlenecks, reduce collisions | TheUnion.com

Highway 49 project to relieve bottlenecks, reduce collisions

Widened 49, relieves bottlenecks, saves lives

Proposals to widen a narrow stretch of Highway 49 will enhance mobility for all modes of transport — cars, trucks, bicycles and pedestrians.

A three part-project — with a final phase proposing a roundabout or traffic light signal at critical intersections — will result in substantial safety achievements, said Sam Vandell, Caltrans project manager, in a meeting last week.

“Improved traffic flow will reduce conflict points between slower and normal moving vehicles and improve safety,” said Vandell.

A roundabout could reduce overall collisions by 37%, serious injuries by 75%, and fatal collisions by 90%, Vandell said. A traffic signal could lead to a 38% reduction in injury-related collisions.

The $161 million project on Highway 49 is between McKnight Way and La Barr Meadows Road, nearly three miles. The project benefits expect to minimize conflict points, decrease severity and frequency of traffic accidents, improve sight distance, remove northbound and southbound merge points, improve access to secondary roads and widen the road’s defensible space and evacuation routes.

Existing conditions include just one lane each for opposing travel, zero to 8 feet shoulders, no right turn lanes and multiple access points to Highway 49 from driveways, businesses and side streets.

In Phase 1 crews would add 10-foot shoulders in north and southbound lanes, There would also be 16-foot left turn lanes.

Phase 2 would add southbound truck climbing lanes, along with centerline shoulder rumble strips; and enhanced visibility traffic striping.

It is a 500-foot climb in elevation from Alta Sierra to the McKnight Way interchange, and that makes it a challenge for trucks to maintain the 55 mph limit. So, the objective is diminish choke points between slower and faster moving traffic while improving safety, Vandell said.

In Phase 3, a concrete median barrier with 10-foot inside shoulders between the McKnight Way interchange and La Barr Meadows Road would be constructed.

One of the biggest challenges remaining for the project is to secure the majority of the $161 million cost from state and federal agencies, which are still being appealed to for support.


Two alternatives for Phase 3 include a roundabout for Wellswood Way. The roundabout would allow a 65-foot tractor-trailer to make a U-turn. A roundabout at Smith Road and Crestview Drive would also accommodate a 65-foot tractor-trailer.

An alternative plan would be a signalized intersection that could also accommodate a 65-foot semi-truck.

“Enhancements will improve circulation between Auburn and Grass Valley,” said Vandell. “And it improves safety by reducing conflict points from vehicles entering and exiting (Highway 49) by providing at-grade intersections with access management.”

Part of improving circulation involves denoting a highway Level of Service, which measures how likely a motorist will be following a slower vehicle.

An “F” Level of Service is an average delay of greater than 50 seconds. There are four conflict points along Highway 49 where the Level of Service is at F level: Golden Chain Motel, Wellswood Way, Smith Road and Crestview Drive, due to high volume of traffic.

Without building the improvements, the Level of Service by 2044 is calculated to remain at “F” level for all of these conflict points and at level “E” for north and southbound traffic in general. Construction through Phase 3 would improve it to a “B,” Vandell said.

Officials hope project approval will occur this fall. By summer 2022 right-of-way acquisition should be completed. Final design is expected by fall 2025, followed swiftly by project promotion and public alert. Construction is expected to begin in winter 2026, and be completed by winter 2028.

William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at wroller@theunion.com

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