Leaders in three Sierra Nevada counties are fighting a plan by Caltrans to transfer a Highway 16 segment to Sacramento County, saying it would choke a vital link between rural communities and the Sacramento metro area.
Because the stretch of Jackson Highway between Watt Avenue and Grant Line Road is expected to become a major growth center, generating as many as 30,000 new homes, the county wants to change it from a two-lane rural highway to a six-lane urban road with more signals and a lower speed limit.
Officials in Amador, Alpine and Calaveras counties say the change will dramatically increase travel time on the main route rural residents use to get to Sacramento and its airport, hospitals and other businesses. They also worry that increased traffic will stop Sacramento-area residents from visiting tourist spots such as Kirkwood ski resort and dozens of wineries in Amador County.
The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday will consider a proposal by the county Transportation Department and Caltrans to seek legislation calling for the highway segment to be relinquished from the state to the county.
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Despite a letter from four area legislators urging that the concerns of the rural communities “are acknowledged and addressed to the greatest extent feasible,” the parties have not been able to reach any sort of compromise.
“We have been stunned by the lack of communication,” said Amador County Supervisor John Plasse. “We first learned of this plan when it was well on its way.”
Plasse and other rural leaders are upset they were left off of a working group consisting of Sacramento County and California Department of Transportation officials and developers planning to build around Jackson Highway.
“That was an oversight on our part,” said Sacramento County Transportation Director Michael Penrose. While he acknowledges that rural officials should have been included in the working group, he said they do not have a feasible compromise plan.
“We really don’t see any other way of doing this,” Penrose said.
Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton acknowledged that state and Sacramento County officials have not closely involved rural leaders in the Jackson Highway plans. Caltrans supports the switch because it wants to get rid of maintenance costs and does not have funding to make needed improvements to the highway, he said.
“The concerns have centered more or less around Sacramento County,” he said.
Though sidelined in talks, rural communities have been vocal about the proposal. Caltrans has received letters criticizing the plan from government and business organizations in Amador, Calaveras and Alpine counties, as well as from the cities of Jackson, Sutter Creek, Ione and Plymouth.
“This is a lifeline for us,” Plasse said. “It’s extremely important – it’s really the only route to our major population center ... We don’t want it turned into a road that’s like Watt Avenue at rush hour.”
Of particular concern to Plasse and other area officials is the impact the change could have on wineries, which produce $18 million a year in sales and need the highway for shipments going out and tourists coming in.
Jeff Gardner, city manager in Plymouth, said approximately 50 wineries are within 10 miles of Plymouth. “We really haven’t grown in 30 years,” he said. “We have a burgeoning wine industry. We don’t want to see it hurt.”
Charles Field, executive director of the Amador County Transportation Commission, said Sacramento County could rebuild Jackson Highway in a manner that would allow for growth and accommodate through traffic. The commission, which is the transportation planning agency for the region, has recommended a road design with signals every mile instead of every half-mile as Sacramento County wants, and new frontage roads and overpasses.
A study funded by the commission found that travel time on Jackson Highway under Sacramento County’s plan would increase by an average of nine minutes. A Sacramento County-funded study pegged the increase at four minutes.
Penrose said the Amador County proposal doesn’t fit the county’s vision of the highway becoming an urban road with a median and bus and bike lanes.
He also said the option of leaving the highway to Caltrans is the worst option for everyone. Growth along the route is inevitable, and Caltrans has no plans to expand what is fast becoming an obsolete road, he said.
In a written report to Sacramento County supervisors, Penrose said the “county does not believe, at this time, there is an environment for further collaboration and agreement on the matter.” He noted that the Amador County Transportation Commission has been meeting in closed session whenever it discusses the issue because of the potential for litigation.
Field said that the commission, made up of elected officials in Amador County, has discussed Jackson Highway only in closed session for about a year. He said a lawsuit might be the commission’s only option for Sacramento County’s plans.