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Forum looks at Nevada City traffic

by Becky Trout

Nestled within a basin and surrounded by steep forested slopes, Nevada City is the natural destination for traffic from outlying areas, local experts emphasized Wednesday night at the first of two transportation forums sponsored by KNCO and The Union.

Once, the traffic was comprised of miners and their pack-laden burros. Now speeding cars and thundering trucks travel the small city’s roads, troubling area residents who worry the traffic will only worsen.

“(Traffic) is the main concern we have in Nevada City,” Mayor Conley Weaver said. “Everything funnels through downtown.”

There really is no feasible alternative, the forum’s five panelists explained to the 25 residents assembled in the Nevada City Council Chambers and those listening to KNCO or watching NVTV.

With challenging topography, expensive land prices, and a city determined to remain historically authentic, Nevada City won’t be able to easily remedy its congestion, the expert panel said.

“The miners found the easiest and quickest way. It will be really difficult to find alternatives that will effectively direct traffic (around the city),” Nevada County Transportation Commission Executive Director Dan Landon said.

Although the discussion did not produce a fix-all plan, it provided traffic and planning experts – including Weaver, Landon, Nevada County Interim Planning Director Randy Wilson, Nevada County Senior Transportation Engineer John Rumsey, and Caltrans regional representative Tom Brannon – an opportunity to explain their plans and the many roadblocks impeding traffic solutions.

Prompted by queries from moderators JoAnn Chartier of KNCO and Richard Somerville, editor of The Union, the panelists discussed regional growth, the proposed Dorsey Drive interchange, Boulder Street, and other problematic intersections.

Weaver said he and other Nevada City residents are worried about the additional cars and trucks brought by a widened HIghway 49.

“The problem is, it appears everything possible is being done to make Highway 49 wider and faster. But once they get here, that’s where they hit the wall,” Weaver said.

One pressing issue is Boulder Street, a hilly pocked road that funnels westbound traffic into Nevada City. Weaver, a “resident expert” on Boulder Street, said his wife regularly gets “slammed” out of bed.

Improving the road was first studied seven years ago but rejected, Rumsey said. A historical wall at the base of the hill constrains the streets width and repaving would only increase the traffic, residents fear.

If Deer Creek Park II, a proposed 193-home development off Red Dog Road, is approved, traffic will increase – planners estimate the subdivision would add 1,467 vehicle passings to the troubled road.

When the initial evaluation of the project was met with passionate opposition last year, planners opted to continue to studying its effects on the area and plan to present a draft to the public this fall, Wilson said.

Routing traffic into the Brunswick basin remains a possibility, he added.

Weaver called the development and its resultant traffic the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

“Something has got to be done,” Weaver said. “We have to give up ‘cost-prohibitive.’ It’s prohibitive not to do what has to be done.”

Large scale developments are unlikely in Nevada City, but the area will continue to grow due to increased building on already approved lots, Wilson said. He said one-third of Nevada County lots are vacant.

And Nevada City residents will continue to be affected by backups in neighboring Grass Valley.

Traffic planners expect many regional problems to be allayed by a long-desired interchange at Dorsey Drive. The added interchange is expected to reduce traffic on Brunswick Road and ease access to Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital.

The project has been plagued by many delays and is now scheduled to begin construction in 2009. The project was first considered in 1984, when it would have cost $5 million, Landon said. But then it was shelved.

When Landon arrived at the transportation commission in 1991, he revived the then-$12 million project. But after funding complications, the now-$16 million will be under way within a few years.

As the forum neared its conclusion, Landon summed up the crux of Nevada City’s transportation woes. “Every plan, every solution encroaches on someone’s way of life,” Landon said. “There’s always a tradeoff.”

The next transportation forum, which will focus on Grass Valley, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 23, at Grass Valley City Hall.

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