Charley Hooper: Caltrans hardly ‘wise and frugal’ Hwy. 174 project
In his first Inaugural Address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson laid out the basic characteristics of “a wise and frugal government.”
Caltrans wants to embark on an extensive project to widen and realign a 1.9-mile stretch of scenic rural Highway 174, from You Bet Road to Maple Way. Let’s consider whether this project can be described as wise and frugal.
The budget for the project is $28.5 million. That cost per mile is similar to the typical price for building four-lane interstates like Highway 80. That doesn’t sound frugal.
The Caltrans project will level, straighten and widen Highway 174. This will involve roughly doubling the width of the asphalt, cutting 1,700 trees larger than six inches in diameter and removing all vegetation to a minimum of 64 feet, more on hillsides. How will drivers react to this new road? Caltrans denies it, but common sense says that drivers will drive faster. This in itself may make the road more dangerous, especially considering all the side roads and driveways upon which vehicles enter and exit the highway.
If safety is the goal, why didn’t Caltrans consider other alternatives? What about flashing lights to warn drivers to slow for corners? What about signs that post the speed limit along with the speed the driver is currently traveling? What about police patrols? I’m sure there are other good ideas. Easy, fast, cheap solutions like these could be tried for a few years and then, if they don’t work, further steps could be considered.
And for this, we, the local residents, will suffer through two years of noise, dust and 15-minute waits behind pilot cars?
Speaking of not considering other solutions, Caltrans didn’t seem aware of, and didn’t consider incorporating, the existing Bear Yuba Land Trust Narrow Gauge walking/biking path that starts at Mount Olive Road and ends precisely where the proposed project begins. That’s a missed opportunity for the community. That doesn’t sound wise.
The rationale for this project is ostensibly safety, which is commendable, until we discover how benign that section of Highway 174 actually is. Caltrans quotes statistics regarding collisions and injuries that show that the “fatality and injury” rate for this section of road is 2.4 times the state average. That sounds bad. But then we discover that Caltrans looked at data for only three years: 2010 through 2012. Why did Caltrans, which should have data over long periods, only look at a period that ended almost five years ago?
From 2005 through 2017, there were three fatalities on this section of road and two of them were when a single car ran off the road on a relatively straight and wide section of the highway. When did these three fatalities happen? During the 2010 through 2012 period. There were no fatalities at any other time. Isn’t it interesting that Caltrans looked at the three worst years, the only years that had fatalities and the years where the average injury rate was 70 percent higher than the other years?
If we look over the longer period of time, the You Bet to Maple Way section of Highway 174 is 20 percent safer than the You Bet to Brunswick section of the same highway, albeit a slightly longer length of road. And these sections are probably far safer than both the twisty section of Highway 174 near the Bear River and that perennial safety challenge, Highway 49.
These issues with the integrity of the safety data compelled the Nevada County Board of Supervisors to send a letter to Caltrans, signed by Hank Weston, stating: “As Chair of the Board of Supervisors, I am sending you this letter to relay our concerns over the Caltrans proposed safety curve realignment project on State Route (SR) 174 in Nevada County.” This letter went on to add: “ … due to the significant changes and alterations that the project will bring to this rural community, additional analysis should be conducted to ensure the accident data used to justify this project is not an outlier over time due to a spurious cause.”
Join over 140 concerned homeowners, prominent community members and the Nevada County Board of Supervisors in asking Caltrans to slow down and think more clearly about drastically altering one of Nevada County’s more beautiful rural highways.
Like Thomas Jefferson, we want a wise and frugal government, a government that carefully plans projects that are appropriate for the situation and clearly address the needs of those affected.
Charley Hooper lives in Grass Valley.
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