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Other Voices: Sales tax may have saved lives on 49

In 1988, a 6-year-old boy was killed on Highway 49 when his mother was stopped on the highway trying to make a left turn into Brewer Road.

Immediately after that incident, friends of the family and other south county citizens who had become concerned about the rapid increase of accidents and injuries on the highway (sometimes resulting in death), formed a grassroots group to address the safety issues. We called ourselves PUSH 49 ” People United for a Safe Highway 49.

The Board of Supervisors and the public were advised of the formation of our group and its purpose. We requested that a public meeting be scheduled that included state, county, local officials and business associations.



This meeting was held on Nov. 3, 1988, chaired by state Sen. John Doolittle and included representatives of all the entities that we had requested. PUSH 49 presented a petition signed by 5,000 citizens (gathered in less than 10 days) supporting our mission.

PUSH 49 had developed a three-part plan to make Highway 49 a safe and efficient thoroughfare, both now and in the future, which was presented at that meeting.




Part one was an immediate action plan requesting left-turn lanes and overhead lighting at main intersections. The support we received was overwhelming and within eight months of our request seven left-hand turns were added by restriping the wider intersections and overhead lighting was installed at those seven intersections and 16 others. Consequently, according Caltrans, accidents decreased 50 percent within the first year of these installations.

Part two of our work plan included, among other things, a public education program and to develop and research a financial plan to implement improvements along the highway.

On March 22, 1989, in response to an invitation from the Nevada County Transportation Commission, representatives from the California Transportation Commission and county officials toured Highway 49 and attended a reception and dinner, hosted by Nevada County Business Association and county transportation officials, in honor of members of the California Transportation Commission. This meeting was also attended by the Board of Supervisors, Nevada City and Grass Valley city councils, Nevada City and Grass Valley planning commissions, area chambers of commerce and the PUSH 49 group.

In the many presentations and speeches given that evening, it was made clear by the California Transportation commissioners the reality of limited funds and it was emphasized that there would be no state or Caltrans support and funding without “matching dollars.” It was suggested that we needed to become a “self-help county.” It was pointed out that this was how the Brunswick interchange was constructed. In a team effort, between local government entities and private citizens, local funding, representing a 43 percent “match,” was developed that successfully competed to keep the project in the S.T.I.P. program.

After that meeting, at the recommendation of the Board of Supervisors, the Nevada County Business Association created a task force to review county road maintenance status as well as Highway 49 needs. They were also charged with the responsibility of analyzing current funding sources.

PUSH 49, in line with part two of their work plan (interim plan) recommended a 1/2-cent sales tax increase, with the funds to be used solely for highway and transportation improvements, said funds to be kept in a separate bank account.

In May 1989, the Nevada County Business Association task force proposed to the Board of Supervisors a 1/2 cent sales tax increase, to be tied to a bond so work could begin immediately to protect projects from increased costs due to inflation. The sales tax generated by this increase, a large percentage of which would be paid by tourists and visitors, would be applied toward the reduction of the bond amount. With so much support from the many entities in the county, the proposal was placed on the ballot on Nov. 6, 1989. However, due to the efforts of a small group of dissenters who convinced so many citizens that if Highway 49 was widened it would only encourage more development and growth (same old story) Measure K, as it was named, was rejected by the voters.

It is interesting to note that the population of Nevada County in 1987 was 72,353. In 2004 (last figures available), the population had grown to 97,660 ” an increase of approximately 35 percent. Obviously, our two-lane highway, unsafe as it had become, did not discourage approximately 25,000 new citizens. (By the year 2015 our population is projected to be approximately 106,500.)

Caltans, in response to renewed citizens’ concerns about highway safety, spent a lot of time and money drawing up a route adoption study in July 1990, showing Highway 49 (as it exists today) and three alternate routes which, because of pressure from dissenting citizens, were subsequently abandoned, leaving Highway 49 as the only viable option for improvement.

In 1990, three alternatives for Highway 49 were proposed by Caltrans, costing between $57 million and $90 million. Today, Caltrans projected that figure to be $222 million.

How sad that so many deaths, injuries and property damage could have been prevented if our citizens had only understood the tremendous need for the permanent widening of our highway and passed the 1/2-cent sales tax increase in 1989.

Human nature being what it is, educating people on safe driving habits very rarely works. Habitual speeders and impatient people will always try to pass slower drivers unsafely, even to the extent, as we all know, of crossing the double yellow line.

Anything done now, as in 1989, to improve safety on Highway 49 will only serve as a Band-Aid. Let’s stop the carnage once and for all!

People in Nevada County need to bite the bullet and approve the 1/2-cent sales tax increase (as proposed in 1989), bonds should be issued and sales tax revenues generated by this increase applied to the bonds. Let us show Caltrans that we are, indeed, a “self-help county” and hopefully the widening of Highway 49 will be placed on the S.T.I.P. program. This is the only permanent solution.

I would like to conclude by quoting Gov. Schwarzenegger, in his wrap-up of his recent State of the State address, in relation to California’s infrastructure needs: “Our systems are at the breaking point now ” but we cannot be overwhelmed by this reality. We cannot freeze in the face of this future. We cannot bury our head in the sand and say, ‘If we don’t build it, they won’t come.'”


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