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How to skip town

Private jet owners can stop reading here.

The rest of us, doomed to dodge veering vehicles and the orange arrows of construction, might benefit from a few tips on traveling to Sacramento.

Piece of cake, you’re thinking – take Highway 49 to Interstate 80.



But with lane-clogging roadwork and life-ending crashes, the highway drive isn’t always the fastest, cheapest or most comfortable route out of town.

Western Nevada County residents have options – there are shortcuts and scenic drives, buses and trains. Well, actually, just one train, but there’s light rail, too.




So read on. Perhaps you’ll shave minutes (or at least seconds) off you’re next trip. You might also save a few bucks that would have gone into gas. And you just might leave the air a bit cleaner.

The root routes

First things first.

There are three basic driving choices – Highways 49, 174 or 20.

McCourtney Road, oh-so-tempting with its southwest inclination, disappointingly dead-ends into Camp Far West Reservoir, a lesson some learn the hard way.

The main routes, however, don’t have to be as straightforward – and slow – as they appear.

West county residents have a bit of a head start and easy access to a shortcut that Judi Kreinick swears by. Off Highway 20, she takes Hammonton Smartville Road to Griffith Avenue, to Erle Road, to Highway 70.

“It’s the only way to go to the airport from (Penn Valley),” Kreinick said. “It’s beautiful green pastures and cows. And, if you’re lucky, you get to see (the spy planes) touch and go at Beale.”

Skirting west first isn’t a time-saver for central city folks, local drivers attest.

The twisty Highway 20 linking Grass Valley and Marysville won’t be widened for a long time, said Tom Brannon, a project manager with Caltrans.

And drivers that miss the Hammonton Smartville turnoff are funneled into downtown Marysville. There are plans for a bypass of the town, but they are very preliminary, only “planned to be planned,” said Tim Snellings, Yuba County’s community development director.

Chicago Park residents also have a clear shot – Highway 174 to Colfax.

Instead of a shortcut, 174 offers a scenic drive, Betty Van Slyke said.

She recommends leaving Highway 174 just before Interstate 80 on a westbound frontage road. The road loops around to Placer Hills Road, which, with a left turn, hits the Clipper Gap/Meadow Vista exit on Interstate 80.

49, the main drag

The key to Highway 49 lies in the timing, commuter Dennis Hilsabeck said. He recommends leaving before 5:45 a.m. and being sure to beat the Friday afternoon rush.

Travel is a bit smoother now that Caltrans has widened the highway south of Combie Road. Caltrans had intended to continue the widening project north to Grass Valley, but budget troubles have pushed back the mid-2008 construction start indefinitely, Brannon said.

The state hasn’t given up the construction business entirely. Crews this summer will widen the shoulders of a short, accident-prone stretch of the highway between Lime Kiln Road and Pekolee Drive, Brannon said.

Work should be completed by the fall.

A little farther out in 2009, Caltrans intends to improve the La Barr Meadows intersection, Brannon said.

A new interchange

Before then, Highway 49 regulars and neighbors will be affected by a proposed interchange near Crestview Drive and Smith Road.

There, engineers are investigating the best way to connect Allison Ranch Road with the highway to accommodate two large developments – SouthHill Villages and Northstar – planned for the south Grass Valley area.

No public money has been used for the planning; developers Sanderson Company Inc. and Catlin Properties have split the $442,000 cost.

Planners would prefer to put the interchange – with on- and off-ramps – at Crestview Drive, but it is too close to McKnight Way, Caltrans Project Manager Clark Peri said.

The alternative, an interchange at Smith Road, would require tearing down about 10 houses and disturbing dozens of families.

To avoid that, Peri’s team will spend the next two months investigating area accident data and traffic characteristics to determine if it would be possible, despite Caltrans’ standards, to locate the interchange at Crestview Drive.

Before the interchange is constructed, a level intersection would be installed as early as next year, Peri said.

The Grass Valley City Council and Caltrans must approve of the location before any construction begins.

There’s more

Whew. Once you’re past all the construction in Nevada County, you’ll want to skip all the congestion in Auburn by taking a left at Bell Road. Bell jets east and intersects with I-80.

Once on the interstate, it’s usually smooth sailing down to Roseville, where, as they say on the East Coast, you’re likely to encounter “a pocket of volume.”

In addition to generating more traffic, the numerous Placer County developments are also pumping money into transportation coffers, which could pay for the long-debated Placer Parkway.

As proposed, the parkway would link highways 65 and 70/99, providing a 15-mile-long northern alternative to Interstate 80. It has been planned for more than a decade but remains controversial.

An environmental report is expected in about two years.

Road alternatives

To avoid driving altogether, the Gold Country Stage – western Nevada County’s bus service – offers rides to Auburn for only $2. Weekdays, buses run six times a day.

The bus stops at Alta Sierra, Lake of the Pines, and a few other places; the entire trip takes 50 minutes.

Once in Auburn, travelers can catch another bus or the train to Sacramento or the Bay Area.

Trains leave from Auburn on weekdays only once a day at 6:35 a.m. and return at 6:30 p.m., not nearly frequently enough for Nevada City resident Steve Sarner, who catches the train in Sacramento when he needs to get to his San Francisco office.

“The total trip from my house to my office is three hours, but most of it is productive time riding the train or (Bay Area Regional Transit) rather than driving,” Sarner said. “If they could get more trains to Auburn, it would eliminate even more time on the road.”

Amtrak buses that connect with trains in Sacramento leave Auburn four times a day.

Amtrak would like to route more trains to Roseville, but lack of money and conflicts with Union Pacific’s freight business have delayed the expansion, said Gene Skoropowski, managing director of the Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority.

He said he expects additional trains to Placer County within two years.

Placer County buses can also ferry travelers from Auburn to the light rail station along Interstate 80, where they can take the rail into downtown Sacramento.

The train departs about four times a hour, and a one-way ticket costs $1.50.

For commuters, the Placer Commuter Express bus departs from Colfax or Auburn twice each morning – both buses depart before 7 a.m. – and returns from downtown Sacramento twice each afternoon.

Relatively, the express is a bit pricier – a one-way ticket goes for $5.

Yet another option for those wary of the roads is a carpool program sponsored by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, available at http://www.sacregion511.org on the Web.

Now you’re on you’re way. How to get back? Well, that’s another story.


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