Charley Hooper: Your government at work
Caltrans has started a major project on Highway 174, one of the most scenic and historically rich highways in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I helped form Save Highway 174 and we’ve been unsuccessfully fighting Caltrans for the past three and a half years. Here are answers to some questions you might have.
What is Caltrans doing?
This project will widen, straighten, and flatten a 1.9-mile section of Highway 174, will cost $28.4 million, and will take two years. The price per mile is what we typically see for major highways such as Highway 80. The road will double in width. An estimated 800 trees will be cut down.
What’s the justification for the project?
Caltrans cherrypicked 36 months of data to find a period of time that covered three fatalities to justify this “safety” project. Both fatal collisions involved drugs and alcohol. One driver made an unsafe turn at night on a rainy road and hit an object. The other driver was traveling at an unsafe speed, lost control, and hit an oncoming vehicle. Both the driver and her child were killed. How would a wider road have helped?
Fifteen years of data shows that this section of Highway 174 is as safe or safer than other similar roads in the area. A Caltrans speed study that was released two years ago agreed with this conclusion. That study reported that the road was safe enough and the speed limit should be increased from 45 to 50 mph, even with no changes to the road.
Caltrans came to two different conclusions. One, the road is so dangerous that it needs to be drastically altered. Two, the road is safe enough, as it is, that the speed limit can be increased. Guess which conclusion was quickly suppressed?
The current thinking about safety is “traffic calming,” which encourages drivers to slow down and pay attention naturally. This project will achieve the exact opposite and we can expect more speeding through this residential neighborhood.
Is the road perfect right now?
No. Every road can stand some improvements. The Federal Highway Administration recommends a safety audit to determine where any problems are and what is causing them, because you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand. Caltrans never followed Federal Highway Administration guidelines and is instead applying a one-size-fits-all solution that doesn’t match the local area.
Has Caltrans done similar work elsewhere?
Yes, but none of those locations have the hills, trees, and population density of this area (our neighborhood has driveways, side roads, mailboxes, etc.).
How did this project come about?
Caltrans deceptively assigned this project a federal highway Type III designation to sidestep the need for environmental impact and noise studies. Type III projects include minor modifications such as replacing guardrails, pavement markings, and minor curve corrections. This is clearly not a Type III project. It should have been registered as a Type I project requiring more careful study.
Did Caltrans engage the community?
Caltrans nominally worked with our group, Save Highway 174, but basically kept us in the dark. Caltrans only reached out to the larger community early in the process at meetings that seemed designed to obfuscate.
Will this project improve fire safety?
Perhaps. But remember this is only 1.9 miles of a much longer road. And if Caltrans was serious about fire safety, why didn’t it contact the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County and the Peardale-Chicago Park Fire Protection District to get expert input?
Is Caltrans protecting sensitive areas?
Caltrans explained to our group that it regularly protects environmentally sensitive areas and objects — heritage oaks, ponds, springs, wetlands, irrigated pastures, and sensitive species such as turtles — during construction. However, Caltrans declined those protections for this project. No reason was given. Caltrans also refused to landscape the area once the road is completed.
What have politicians done?
Caltrans is overseen by the California Transportation Commission. I’ve traveled long distances to attend two CTC meetings to discuss this project but was ignored and dismissed.
Locally, the Board of Supervisors and the Nevada County Transportation Commission were initially sympathetic. On Nov. 7, 2017, the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution supporting revision of the project. There were seven points in that resolution but Caltrans only partially addressed two of them. In the end, the Board stopped helping after Heidi Hall, whose district this project is in, apparently lost interest.
This project is a nightmare for local residents, is ruining a beautiful road, and reflects poorly on our government.
Charley Hooper lives in Peardale.
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