Old Jackson Highway has had many personalities. Once a lazy path to the foothills past strawberry and hop fields, the east Sacramento County road today is a busy commute and truck route flanked by pit mines, rural ranchettes, small industry and encroaching suburbs.
Now, Sacramento-area leaders are in talks with the state Department of Transportation to take control of the road, also known as Highway 16 and Jackson Road, so they can prep it for the biggest remake yet.
Officials in Sacramento County, the city of Sacramento and Rancho Cordova want to turn 11 miles of the two-lane highway into an urban street to serve as the spine for massive development.
"Local control gives us flexibility, particularly where we have town centers and commercial centers we want to have developed," said county planning director Leighann Moffitt.
The Jackson Highway area is being promoted as one of the Sacramento region's potential urban growth areas for the next 20 to 30 years. Developers are drawing up plans for as many as 30,000 housing units between South Watt Avenue and Grant Line Road.
The Teichert and Granite companies' mining sites, the big Sacramento rendering plant and the area's hodgepodge of industries and ranchlands would be subsumed by new communities.
Caltrans officials say they are willing to hand control of the road west of Grant Line to locals, especially since much of it already is becoming an urban crossroads.
"Our planning has anticipated relinquishment of Highway 16 for a number of years," said local Caltrans director Jody Jones.
The move has precedent. Caltrans previously relinquished the Freeport Boulevard section of Highway 160 to the city of Sacramento and also turned over Highway 275 to West Sacramento.
Local officials say the handover could take a few years, but they already have preliminary plans for a major revamp.
They say they are looking at reducing speeds from 55 to 45 mph, increasing the number of intersections with traffic signals from nine to 16, and bulking the two-laner up to six lanes. Express buses could share outside lanes with cars. County transportation officials say the street would be similar to Laguna Boulevard in Elk Grove.
But Jackson Highway wouldn't be an ordinary suburban street. The road would continue to serve as the main route between Sacramento and Amador County. The portion east of Grant Line Road would remain under state control as a highway.
Sacramento's plans have Amador County leaders upset. Amador transportation officials, who say they were left out of early discussions, point out that the highway handles 3,000 commuters driving to and from the foothills every day who would find it harder to get to jobs downtown if they had to drive on a busy surface street with local traffic and added stoplights.
"We feel like a distant cousin at best," said Charles Field, executive director of the Amador County Transportation Commission. If Caltrans relinquishes the highway, "we would like a written agreement saying they will maintain the route as a controlled-access inter-regional route."
Some Jackson Highway-area residents are unhappy as well, saying they moved to ranchettes on the county edge to get away from development, not to be engulfed by it.
But Sacramento County officials and developers say the Jackson Highway corridor is a smart place to grow, because it would allow people to live near jobs in downtown and Rancho Cordova.
"It is an opportunity to create an innovative community," Moffitt said.
Developers of one planned project, New Brighton, at the southwest corner of Watt and Jackson Highway, say their project would include the largest community farm in the country, at 300-plus acres.
The New Brighton site also could be the kickoff spot for a meandering bus or even trolley route that would run through several neighborhoods, taking residents to nearby major bus stops or light-rail stations.
Another potential housing project called NewBridge, planned near Sunrise Boulevard, would boast large vernal pool and biological preserves, its developers said. Roads in the development may also be designed to allow residents to drive Neighborhood Electric Vehicles to nearby jobs.
For now, though, the urban farm idea, trolley cars, NEVs and other development plans remain on the drawing board and might stay there for years to come.
Although construction around Sacramento has perked up again after the deep recession, planners and builders predict moderate demand for housing nothing like the boom years a half-decade ago.
"Builders and developers are optimistic, but very cautiously optimistic," said Rancho Cordova city engineer Cyrus Abhar.
The Jackson Highway projects also face competition from other planned developments that could bring as many as 100,000 new housing units to a swath of eastern Sacramento County from Folsom to Elk Grove far more than experts predict the market will support.
Developers in the Jackson Highway corridor promote their area as a better choice than some others for the next round of growth because much of it is near urban areas some of it near existing light-rail stops and is already in use for industrial purposes. Some housing projects are planned to be built in the existing mining pits, where land would be landscaped to make the pit flanks look like hills.
Yet even as Jackson Highway developers scramble to get their projects lined up for approval, several say they do not know when the economics will be right to begin building.
The planned New Brighton community, which is inside Sacramento city limits, close to existing urban areas, light-rail stations and downtown, would seem to have an inside edge. It may get the green light from the City Council next year, but developer Randy Sater says that doesn't mean his company will pull out the shovels immediately.
Sater's company, StoneBridge Properties, is a subsidiary of Teichert Mining Land Co., and the New Brighton site is a productive mining operation.
Sater said his company's decision to build will be based on "what the market is saying in terms for the need for that housing, and what the future needs of our (mining) operations."
Environmentalists, who often oppose development on the urban edge, said they see some upside to remaking the Jackson Highway area, if the county and developers would be willing to commit to bringing true transit options to the area, including strong connections to light rail.
Ron Maertz of the Environmental Council of Sacramento says his group is pitching a "transit services district" along Jackson Highway that homeowners would pay into annually.
"We are pushing very hard on the Jackson corridor," he said. "We feel it is important that transit service be there soon after the project starts to develop."
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.