It started as a simple Sunday stroll.
Three teenage boys walked along Highway 49 in Auburn one day last month, skateboards under their arms, heading to a nearby coffee shop. The sidewalk there sits on a mound above the road, but suddenly, for no apparent reason, ends. It deposited the trio on the road shoulder, feet from 50-mile-per-hour traffic.
Auburn resident Philip Ingram was driving on Highway 49 in his pickup truck at that same moment. Police say he was under the influence of prescription drugs when he careened off the road and hit the boys, killing Trevor Keller and Jared Gaches, both 15, and narrowly missing Nicholas Agosti. Ingram remains in jail awaiting a June bail hearing on charges of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated.
Last week, the three families visited the site. Agosti told his friends’ parents about those last moments. His father, Mark Agosti, a real estate agent, talked later to The Sacramento Bee about his son’s hysterical phone call that day, about hurrying to the scene to find ambulances and paramedics, and about that sidewalk.
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“It doesn’t make sense to build a sidewalk that just stops,” he said. “It literally goes nowhere.”
The spot, across from Locksley Lane, isn’t the only danger zone for pedestrians on Highway 49 in the fast-developing north Auburn area.
The 4-mile corridor between Dry Creek Road and Interstate 80 is lined with dozens of stores, restaurants, businesses, schools, a hospital and housing. What it doesn’t have is a continuous sidewalk on either side of the street.
It doesn’t make sense to build a sidewalk that just stops.
One block will have a paved pathway, separated from traffic, buffered by vegetation, only to be followed the next block by nothing more than gravel and dirt, or a strip of asphalt. In some cases, new sidewalks curl around a corner from a side street onto the highway, then stop after a few yards.
The sidewalk where the boys died was unusual. It runs for a few hundred yards along a cinder block wall in front of a self-storage facility, then dips down to the road shoulder and stops where a guardrail and thick bushes force pedestrians onto the road.
It’s far from ideal, Placer County planners admit. It represents a piecemeal approach to making the corridor safely usable for pedestrians – someday. Other cities and counties also install partial sidewalks at times, awaiting more financing later to finish the job.
“Obviously, we can see what danger that poses,” Placer planner Gerry Haas said. But the sidewalk was built with “the best intentions. We don’t design sidewalks to nowhere. That is not the intent. They work toward completing an overall vision.”
As far back as 1994, the county’s community plan for the corridor noted the dangers.
“The lack of sidewalks and insufficient shoulder widths along certain segments of the highway creates a condition that is not conducive to pedestrians,” the 22-year-old Auburn Bowman community plan reads. “In order to ensure public safety, (sidewalks) are to be incorporated into new and redeveloped projects.” The goal, planners wrote, was simple: a “continuous pathway.”
In Placer County, however, the transportation focus remains largely on moving more cars and trucks efficiently. Even in the aftermath of deaths that horrified the community, Placer officials say there are no plans to extend the sidewalk along the stretch where the boys where killed.
“There isn’t any money, currently,” said Rich Moorehead, county public works engineering manager. The county previously expected to use state redevelopment funds for some sidewalk work, but state officials eliminated that funding source several years ago.
The county is more likely someday to build a sidewalk on the other side of the street, he said, where there already are intermittent sidewalks in front of some businesses, and safer space on an embankment above the highway.
Why, then, is that dead-end pathway north of Quartz Drive even there?
It scares me to see people walking along, particularly at night.
Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes
The answer lies in Placer’s development policies for the Highway 49 corridor. Since the 1994 community plan, the county requires developers to build sidewalks in front of their projects. The sidewalks are to be built at least 4 feet from the road shoulder, with bushes and trees separating pedestrians and cars.
But the county cannot retroactively require owners of adjacent undeveloped or previously developed properties to put in sidewalks. That’s why there is a sidewalk on a landscaped mound in front of the Rock Creek Self Storage facility, but not in front of the older Rock Creek Mobile Home Park next door, where the boys were killed.
Notably, the road is owned by the California State Deportment of Transportation, which historically has built lanes for car drivers, not sidewalks for pedestrians. Typically, it is the county that must apply for state encroachment permits and put in sidewalks. Caltrans has recently begun broadening its view of its role to include giving more consideration to pedestrians and cyclists, not just drivers, as its constituents.
The lack of pedestrian facilities also is a legacy of the area’s rural history. County Supervisor Jim Holmes, who grew up on a ranch on Highway 49 at Willow Creek, would ride his horse alongside the old two-lane highway. “I never thought about sidewalks,” he said. “I lived out in the country. (We felt) we don’t need no damn sidewalks.”
Now, his old homestead is a busy urban crossroads. A Les Schwab tire store sits where his house once stood. There’s a Home Depot, bank, fast-food restaurants, Starbucks and other retail outlets at the corner. The highway has eight lanes there, including turn lanes, but no sidewalk at Les Schwab or across the street in front of Big 5 Sporting Goods.
“There are families with kids walking to stores,” Holmes said. “It scares me to see people walking along, particularly at night.”
He’d like to see a pedestrian overpass, but says that’s probably a “pipe dream.”
Placer officials say they have two sidewalk projects in the works. One is expected this year from New Airport Road to near Willow Creek, and another in two to three years farther north near Education Street, filling gaps between existing sidewalks. Project manager Jeff Apps said those areas are seeing more pedestrians.
Placer’s money woes are similar to those faced by cities and counties throughout the state. State and federal transportation funds have been drying up. In the city of Auburn, where long stretches of Highway 49 lack sidewalks, city planning and public works director Bernie Schroeder is blunt: Local streets come before a highway owned by the state.
“I can see up 49 now,” Schroeder said. “I don’t see one person walking.”
Walking distances from stores are often long, making the corridor unattractive for pedestrians, even where there are sidewalks. For now, the smattering of people walking along Highway 49 are often teens, retirees who live nearby, and lower-income people without access to a car, although officials say the number of pedestrians and cyclists will increase as the area densifies.
Even with so few people on foot, seven pedestrians have been hit by vehicles, and three of them killed, between Dry Creek Road and Interstate 80 since 2014, according to the California Highway Patrol and Auburn police. In several cases, they had wandered into or were crossing the road, but were not in crosswalks.
Cindy Dulaney, a homeless woman staying in a local shelter, walks along the road frequently and doesn’t feel safe. “It’s like a narrow margin that you have,” she said, carrying a package up the hill on a rutted shoulder near Nevada Street, where the speed limit is 45 mph.
Sixteen-year-old Nathan Ford crossed five lanes of traffic near Locksley Lane last week a few yards from where the two teens died. It’s a stretch with no signalized crosswalk for three-quarters of a mile. He said he now thinks about Keller and Gaches every time he walks there. He pointed to their names on a roadside memorial, yellow wooden planks shaped like skateboards nailed to a tree.
“They had no idea,” he said. “It can just come out of nowhere. I know they need to make more sidewalks in Auburn for sure.”
The county may have an improved opportunity to do that later this year. Placer County is considering putting a transportation sales tax measure on the November ballot that would raise an estimated $1.6 billion over 30 years for roadwork throughout the county. Much of the money is intended for freeway interchanges. But the measure includes $29 million for Highway 49 “operational and safety improvements” as well as some money designated for countywide bike and pedestrian improvements.
Placer County Transportation Planning Agency head Celia McAdam said the sales tax could be the county’s only chance for some time for funds to close the gaps in the sidewalks. The tax, however, faces a tough two-thirds voter approval threshold, in a county where many oppose higher taxes in principle.
Stuart Cohen, executive director of TransForm, a statewide advocacy group for walkable communities, said it’s time for Placer to make bike and pedestrian facilities in north Auburn a higher priority. That could include analyzing how pedestrians use the corridor, where trouble spots are, and what kinds of creative fixes will make walking and biking safer, and even encourage more people to do those things.
In areas where sidewalks aren’t feasible or affordable, Cohen said, the county could look into putting rumble strips on the side of the road or rows of white reflective plastic pylons next to the slow lanes at short, 15-foot intervals.
Caltrans has been adding lanes to Highway 49, planning to make it consistently six lanes through the area. At the same time, however, the agency recently instituted a statewide “Complete Streets” program, acknowledging that widening highways through rural communities is not necessarily desirable.
“If the project we are taking on increases through-put of cars and it is a detriment to the community, it is a detriment to pedestrians, to bicyclists, to transit users, to businesses around there, then we need to rethink that project,” Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said this week, speaking generally. “That scope may not be the right scope of work. We have to balance those.”
Last week in Auburn, Mark Agosti stood surveying the traffic at the crash site after the three families had finished their emotional visit. His son is in counseling, he said, trying to deal with seeing his buddies’ lives swept away, and with the realization of the fragility of his own life.
The county and state need to respond to those deaths, the elder Agosti said. “Somebody else is going to get hit. It’s going to happen again.”