With increase in high-tech jobs comes rise in area commuters
It’s a scene that Jeff Kotowski begrudgingly plays out frequently.
Kiss the wife and kids goodbye, drive down from his Banner Mountain home to Grass Valley, pick up a rental car, set the stereo to National Public Radio and prepare to spend the next three hours on foothill highways and Bay Area freeways.
Kotowski, 40, designs integrated circuits for cell phones and PCs for Maxim Integrated Projects in Nevada City. When he’s not at the office on Lower Grass Valley Road, he’s at the company headquarters in Sunnyvale, meeting with the powers that be, keeping tabs on the technology revolution in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Kotowski is part of a community of Gold Country technophiles making frequent commutes to the Bay Area as part of their job requirements. As the Grass Valley-Nevada City area continues its own technological revolution, luring Silicon Valley-based and homegrown software, information technology and Internet firms here, commuting for some is becoming a necessity.
Other than being away from his family for up to three days a month, Kotowski doesn’t seem to mind.
“It’s just part of the job,” he said. “It is nice in the electronics industry to go to Silicon Valley once in a while and see how things are going,” said Kotowski, who has worked for Maxim a little less than a year. “It seems like Silicon Valley is half a year away, but really, it’s not bad.”
As is the case with most firms requiring employees to travel long distance, Kotowski’s rental car, food and hotel room are paid for, which makes it a bit easier.
“But there’s no way I could do it every day,” he said.
A quick glance of traffic patterns during what passes for local rush hour is a telling picture of just how many commuters there are, Kotowski and others say.
“If they want to ruin Nevada County, they can make (Highway) 49 four lanes to Auburn or create strip malls all along the highway, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Kotowski said.
Maybe not for a while, said Dan Landon, executive director of the Nevada County Transportation Commission. The seven-member group is responsible for mapping out transit solutions and deciding how to provide for increased traffic flows on Highway 49 and other Nevada County thoroughfares.
During peak afternoon commute times, Landon said, 2,000 vehicles per hour travel from the Bear River bridge to the Grass Valley city limits – 500 more per hour than the road was designed for.
A project to widen a stretch of Highway 49 from two to four lanes beginning at the Bear River bridge and ending at Combie Road is scheduled for approval Thursday. The $15 million project could be completed in two years. Total cost to widen the entire road to the Grass Valley city limits could run up to $100 million, Landon said.
“We’re at the threshold now that if we don’t do these improvements, congestion’s going to get worse and worse. This project reflects not only our existing level of traffic, but future (growth) as well.”
Holly Chamberlain, assistant manager for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, sees many of these commuting clients. Her firm manages about 20 corporate accounts, most of which rent mid-size vehicles an average of four days.
“For business accounts, the Bay Area is the most popular destination,” Chamberlain said.
Nevada County Airport manager Gary Petersen said these days, more corporate clients are flying into western Nevada County than leaving for Silicon Valley.
“It used to be predictable that we’d see people every day fly out to the Bay Area, but now, we see more coming here,” he said, an indication of both the downturn in the Bay Area’s economy and the growing local industry.
It’s hard to tell if wider roads will lead to more commuters, though.
Jim Schuessler, 43, travels to Santa Clara occasionally as a marketing employee for National Semiconductor.
For five years, he commuted from Grass Valley to Santa Clara once a week for two to three days at a time, leaving his wife Lisa with diaper changes.
He’s in Silicon Valley only occasionally now.
“That started to get old with two young kids,” he said. Now, “it’s a good balance working for a company based in a tech area but living in an area that I like.”
Richard Tovar, a designer for National, gave up the commute years ago. Though he has many relatives in the San Jose area, the 49-year-old said, “I wanted the continuity of a family life. That’s why I weaseled my way into this position.” He’s primarily in Nevada City these days.
Schuessler, married with 7- and 9-year-old girls, used to telecommute for years. He misses the Bay Area’s cultural diversity, but adds, “My family would like me home all the time, but I think they understand having a well-paying job makes it easier.”
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