Milan Vodicka: Nevada County rural highway? Which highway?
December 17, 2017
Highway 174! Local — very local — issue! Why do I choose to write about it?
Two reasons stand out: 1. The issue presents a mirror of how our "democratic" society works, and 2. The result of the highway "improvement" project is very personal. I live in proximity of Highway 174, traveling on it frequently.
This writing is a reflection on a hearing by the Nevada County Supervisors on Oct. 24.
So, let me try to cut through the fog of "Caltrans versus local community …" evidenced by the hearing. The synopsis is very well described by the following metaphor:
Why not consider and implement alternative approaches that would improve “safety,” at a fraction of the cost?
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A patient comes to a doctor, with a complaint and symptoms of a broken toe. The doctor, well aware of his duty and means for a cure, responds: "Dear patient, we have a true and tried method to alleviate you of this illness. We shall amputate your leg. And, by the way, you have no say into whether it will happen or not, it will happen. This amputation therapy has already been approved under the category of a minor surgery. Your insurance has already approved funds for it. It will provide $28 million."
This metaphor illustrates the story of the project. From the Caltrans perspective, it is presented like this:
1. There is a safety problem on a 1.9 miles-long section of the highway, documented by data of 2010-2013. There were three fatalities from two crashes, both caused by DUI.
2. Based on this data, the project, at a cost of $28 million, was approved, as a "minor repair" — not requiring any public input, hearings, or a decision authority beyond the Caltrans decision makers. In the very words of the representative of Caltrans, this is "a true and tried method" to deal with the "safety" problem.
3. No local authority, including the board of supervisors and the County Planning Commission, can revoke or affect this "done deal." The eminent domain law will be invoked for 49 owners bordering the highway, in some cases placing the roadway right in front of the door to their residences.
In very polite terms, I can only describe this "remedy" for an overstated safety problem (compared to average California highways safety records) as inappropriate and a gross overkill.
Perhaps less politely, insane.
Consider this: The resulting road will be double the width of the current one, with an additional 20 feet on each side — no tree or rock there — designated "Clear Recovery Zone." About 1,800 trees will have to be removed. Some adjacent pastures (hey, agricultural land) will be gone. I already mentioned the poor residents affected. Please find http://www.savehwy174.com for the complete local community information.
Now, I spent last week driving Highway 20 all the way to Fort Bragg, Highway 17 to Santa Cruz, interstate Highway 80 through Sacramento (with speeds about 70 miles per hour) and nowhere did I see that recovery zone of 20 feet on each side. "Tried and true" remedy, where? It is a challenge to find this zone anywhere.
One aspect of the Caltrans project that strikes me as odd, is the cavalier attitude toward trees. Those trees provide shade, hold the water and banks together. Who wants hydroplaning, potential mud slides, and heat in this mountain environment? And — simply — how about the beauty of nature?
Another significant aspect of the project is its utter financial waste. Why not consider and implement alternative approaches that would improve "safety," at a fraction of the cost? How about lowering and/or monitoring speed, speed bumps (with warnings), side railings, perhaps retaining walls, turnouts?
In summary, a flawed and selective reasoning along with a disrespect of our county and our local community values, collude with a flawed process — aside from other important considerations — into a colossal and inappropriate waste of public funds.
Those funds could be put to a better and more effective use elsewhere. I sincerely hope this project proposal is not the proverbial "end of the road" and some reasonable resolution will yet emerge. No amputation, please!
I do not hold any ill will against the Caltrans representatives for kowtowing to the "party line." It is their "job." However, I want to encourage them to carry the community message to persons responsible for decisions that authorize the project.
Importantly, many thanks and gratitude to all of our Nevada County supervisors. They are showing by their actions that they truly represent us.
Milan Vodicka, Ph.D. lives in Nevada County.
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