‘Preserve 174’ initiative takes strong stance on Caltrans project in Nevada County | TheUnion.com

‘Preserve 174’ initiative takes strong stance on Caltrans project in Nevada County

The number of collisions along Highway 174 between Maple Way and You Bet Road exceeds the state standard, according to Caltrans. As a result, the department plans to improve that portion of the highway over the next few years — but opposers to their project have already begun to make noise.

Many questions remain for Nevada County residents opposing the California Department of Transportation's proposed safety project for the two-mile stretch of Highway 174 between Maple Way and You Bet Road.

Will the project, which proposes realigning curves and widening lanes, really reduce the number of collisions that occur on that stretch? Some say the road modifications could actually encourage speeding and increase the number of collisions.

Has the department really considered the impact the project would have on the environment? Some opponents say it would reduce air quality by killing 1,700 coniferous trees, and reduce habitat for local animals — such as the yellow-legged frog.

Have alternatives, such as increasing California Highway Patrol presence for speed enforcement, been given significant consideration?

And, perhaps the biggest question: is the project really necessary? Caltrans uses statistics from a three-year period between 2009 and 2011 that show an unusually high number of collisions to justify the project. Opponents say those statistics are "cherry-picked" and don't represent an average three-year period, but, instead, an outlier.

They ask: Isn't a safety project more warranted for nearby Highway 49, which is much more heavily trafficked?

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'Preserve 174'

All of those questions and more were discussed Tuesday night during a "Preserve 174" meeting, which drew nearly 60 county residents.

Many attended the meeting because they own property along Highway 174, and are concerned that the project could impact them negatively. Caltrans said it has identified 49 parcels that will be directly impacted by the project, and will soon begin the process of acquiring parcels or parts of parcels.

Acquisition negotiations and purchases, if required, will take place between Caltrans and property owners, the department said. Many who attended the meeting said they wouldn't cooperate with acquisition offers.

Others attended the meeting simply because they enjoy the highway's scenic nature, and are disturbed by the initiative to alter it.

'cookie-cutter approach'

The project proposes widening lanes along the two-mile stretch to 12 feet and adding 20 feet of "clear recovery zone" — void of any trees, poles or other obstructions — on each side of the road. The recovery zones would include 8-foot shoulders. Wider shoulders and recovery zones, according to Caltrans, enhance pedestrian and bicyclist safety, provide additional room for errant vehicles to recover and correct direction of travel, and allow more room for emergency and service vehicles, among other benefits.

But some say that approach would ruin the aesthetics of the winding, rural two-lane highway, and would be more suitable for a major freeway.

In a recent meeting with Caltrans representatives, project opponent Tom Holdridge said, "we called them on using a cookie-cutter approach to a non-cookie-cutter situation. They were offended by that."

Many of those who spoke at the meeting clarified they aren't against the idea of addressing safety issues along the highway. But they don't think such extreme measures are necessary in order to make that happen.

"Preserve 174" steering committee members said they are working on creating a unified message of opposition, which they hope will be the best strategy in fighting the project. A collective voice, they said, will be a strong force.

calculating the need

Caltrans told The Union in June that the safety project is necessary because the collision rate along 174 between Maple Way and You Bet Road exceeds the average for similar types of highways in the state.

Based on a "specific formula that is used statewide by Caltrans Traffic Safety staff and which has been determined to be an accurate reflector of the accident rates on any particular stretch of highway," Caltrans said in an email, department staff calculated that 2.03 collisions resulting in fatalities or injuries occurred per million vehicle miles traveled along the two-mile stretch between 2009 and 2011. The state average was 0.56.

Asked for the specific formula involved in calculating those numbers, Caltrans staff did not immediately provide an answer. Project opponents said they have tried to calculate the statistic, but have been unable to exactly replicate the department's results.

The widening project is intended to "help reduce the number and severity of collisions on the existing Highway System," according to a project study report provided by the department.

"There were concerns that this project could ruin the scenic nature of the highway, or take away from the rural lifestyle of residents out there," Project Manager Cameron Knudson told The Union in June. "But this is a safety issue, and once that's been identified, the state is liable if we don't do anything about it."

Caltrans Public Information Officer Liza Whitmore said an answer was not readily available on whether lawsuits had been filed against Caltrans by victims of accidents that occurred on sections of state highway previously designated for safety projects that were never completed.

Project opponents said they are gathering signatures on a petition, available at savehwy174.com/take-action. They also plan to work with elected officials, display informative signs along the highway and meet on a monthly basis.

Caltrans said construction is slated to begin during the summer of 2019 and be completed by the fall of 2020.

To contact Staff Writer Matthew Pera, email mpera@theunion.com or call 530-477-4231.

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