For almost half a century, gravel trucks and big rigs rumbled through downtown Lincoln as they traveled to Roseville, Yuba City and points beyond. Residents and business owners said heavy traffic from drivers using Lincoln Boulevard as a thoroughfare deterred people from frequenting the shops and restaurants that line the city’s historic district.
Lincoln leaders hope that will change, now that the Placer County city has taken over Old Highway 65 from the state. The transfer came nearly two years after Caltrans opened the Lincoln Bypass, an 11.7-mile section of highway that circumvents the city.
Now that the city has control and commuter traffic has been rerouted through the Lincoln Bypass, Lincoln officials plan to turn their main street into a more pedestrian-friendly area.
Though the city estimates that the bypass has cut traffic in half along Lincoln Boulevard, residents say the street has yet to become the cozy downtown long envisioned. On a recent weekday afternoon, traffic running north was brisk with small sedans jostling for room with logging trucks.
“They put in the bypass expecting it to completely take away traffic from Lincoln Boulevard – that definitely hasn’t happened,” said Lindsay West, a Lincoln resident and real estate agent who uses the road to commute daily.
Starting in the fall, crews will begin a series of projects aimed at improving the area, making it more accessible and attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists. The city will upgrade sidewalks, furnish benches and even add terra cotta tile inlays. Workers will replace some traffic signals and install bicycle loop detectors, which automatically change the signal when there is no oncoming traffic.
“Wire loops are in the pavement so as a bicycle goes over, you don’t need to get off the bike and press the crosswalk button,” said Ray Leftwich, the city’s public services construction manager.
The improvements will cost the city $4.5 million and are expected to be completed by mid-2016. Under its agreement with the state, Lincoln will also receive $1 million for taking possession of the road.
Gilbert Mohtes-Chan, spokesman for the California Department of Transportation, said the June 3 handover occurred only after the legal paperwork was finalized and the new Lincoln Bypass completely finished.
“We also worked with the city to coordinate the traffic signals, moving from a highway to a local street,” Mohtes-Chan said. “Obviously you have less traffic going through the city now.”
Local control also means easier access to event permits because the city will likely be more inclined than Caltrans to close the downtown street, said Downtown Lincoln Association President Wayne Sisneroz. Community and business groups hope to capitalize on this by organizing more festivals and outdoor events that will generate foot traffic and sales for downtown merchants.
The Downtown Lincoln Association last year began hosting a food-truck festival once a month on nearby Fifth Street. The Lincoln Community Foundation is planning a Chocolate Lover’s Festival on Oct. 11 with chocolate tastings, a silent auction and a showing of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”
“We’re not competing with the mall in Roseville,” said Sisneroz, referring to the Westfield Galleria eight miles to the south. “What we have is the experience of Main Street USA.”
On a recent weekday afternoon, Lincoln Boulevard was largely empty, its sidewalks sizzling in high heat. But crowds gathered for lunch at Awful Annie’s, a restaurant at the intersection with G Street. Clothing and antique boutiques hosted the occasional passer-by.
A marketing analysis report commissioned by the city in 2010, before the opening of the Lincoln Bypass, noted that traffic and parking were chief complaints among downtown visitors.
In a 2006 report, Caltrans said studies consistently show that highway bypasses “seldom devastate or save downtowns.” But for business districts that already draw locals or serve as tourist destinations, “a reduction in downtown traffic congestion is most likely to strengthen the downtown.”
Sisneroz added that the association is exploring the possibility of installing public art on the street, though he acknowledged funding would be tough to find. Ultimately, Lincoln civic and business leaders hope to replicate the success that other historic downtowns, including Auburn and Folsom, have had in drawing tourists.
Tina Sikkema, who moved from Japan two years ago and owns Lily Kate Fashion Boutique, said the road transfer could lead to a renaissance downtown. Her business is in the historic Lincoln Brand Feed building, a brick structure with retailers and restaurants.
“Foot traffic will probably increase 50 percent if we have events that close down the street,” she said.
Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.