Phil Carville: The boondoggle begins | TheUnion.com
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Phil Carville: The boondoggle begins

Caltrans has begun cutting trees for its project to straighten, level and drastically widen a 1.8-mile section of beautiful Highway 174. The project will take two years during which commuters can expect delays of 20-30 minutes.

This project will create an ugly scar and a high-speed, concrete wound in an otherwise forested, bucolic highway.

Boondoggle #1 — Bad design: Caltrans will create a swath 65-75 feet wide: two paved 12-foot travel lanes, plus two paved 8-foot recovery lanes, plus “cleared areas” and areas for cut or fill (horizontal and vertical alignment). A roadway wider than parts of Highway 49.



Boondoggle # 2 — Huge cost: The cost is overwhelming — $28 million in taxpayer dollars when a more pleasant and safe project could have been built for at least $10-$15 million or less.

Caltrans stonewalled the community. Had Caltrans listened to the thousands of concerned citizens, this project could have been a safe, wonderful road with a reduction of 200,000 square feet of pavement, the elimination of several hundred thousand cubic yards of dirt, the preservation of over 800 trees and at a cost savings of $10 million to $15 million.



Boondoggle #3 — Biased data: Caltrans cherry-picked the safety data to justify this project by using accident data for only a 3-year period during which three persons died. Eight years of data show that this project would not be justified.

Those three fatalities involved drugs and alcohol. Would a wider road have eliminated those deaths?

Boondoggle # 4 — Your tax dollars at work: This week I was struck by the delays and the self-congratulatory sign “Your Tax Dollars at Work.” It should have said, “Your Tax Dollars being Squandered”.

In 2018, the Air Force admitted to purchasing replacement toilet seat covers for the C-5 Galaxy (a 50-year-old, Vietnam-era airplane) for $10,000 each. After being embarrassed, the Air Force “discovered” toilet seats could be 3D-printed toilet seats for $300.

This project is a “$28 million Caltrans Toilet Seat.”

Boondoggle #5 — No EIR: Caltrans has the authority to determine whether its projects require an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) or not.

Caltrans determined this project, costing $14 million/mile, cutting 1,000+ trees, encroaching into meadows/wetlands, impacting existing wells, adding additional lanes, taking two years to complete, does not need an EIR. Mindboggling … to say the least!

Boondoggle #6 — Poor property owners: Highway property owners will suffer severe declines in property values. A property could easily lose $50,000 to $100,000 in value.

Owners, who objected to the project, had to drive nine hours to Caltrans meetings in Southern California, because no Northern California sites were offered. Owners had only a few minutes to speak and no questions were asked by the commissioners.

Boondoggle #7 — Stonewalled: Why would Caltrans stonewall citizens who wanted a more reasonable design? Perhaps there was a design team sitting somewhere in isolated cubicles, referencing federal highway standards, and unfamiliar with the unique beauty of Highway 174.

Their mandate was not to create a “context sensitive” design, but to create wide roads, make “cars happy,” increase speeds and handle traffic for the next 50 years.

Boondoggle #8 — The Camel’s Nose: Caltrans claims that this is the only section of Hwy. 174 that they want to change. This is probably hogwash.

I can see a time a few years from now when Caltrans says “Oh, there are other sections which need ‘improvement’ and we want four lanes for another five miles of Highway 174.” After the camel get its nose under the tent, there will be no stopping until the entire camel is in the tent.

Boondoggle #9 — Lack of creativity: Let’s us pretend that you, I and a few other folks were given the responsibility to design this project. We would talk to neighbors and find safety improvements, but also preserve the bucolic essence of this road. We would improve sight lines, not change the vertical alignment (provides visual interest and reduces travel speeds). We might add a bike/walking lane. For $28 million, we could have also created a bike path all the way from Chicago Park to Grass Valley.

Boondoggle #10 — Flawed future: In the next decade there will be “self-driving cars.” These cars will safely ‘platoon’ in groups and increase road capacity by a factor of five. Then, people will look back and say “Who authorized such a stupid and ugly monster? They ruined our road.”

Boondoggle #11 — “Not understanding”: In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote his classic novel “The Jungle” in which he exposed the terrible unsanitary conditions in meatpacking industry. The uproar led to the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The meatpacking industry fought change.

Why didn’t the meatpacking industry (i.e. Caltrans staff) just see a better option (road design)?

Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Bureaucratic intransigence, salary and retirement benefits can make some people just ‘not understand’.

Phil Carville lives in Nevada County.


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