Amador County says Sacramento growth plans will turn Jackson Highway into a parking lot

For nearly a century, ribbon-like Jackson Highway has connected urban Sacramento to bucolic Amador County in the foothills. Now, a fight over the future of the highway is dividing the two.

Sacramento County has asked Caltrans to give it control of 8 miles of the two-lane road so the county can turn it into an urban arterial street that would function as the spine for up to 30,000 new homes in the coming decades, allowing the metropolitan area to march east as far as Grant Line Road.

Amador County officials are crying foul, saying the highway – formally State Route 16 – will be just another major suburban road, jammed with stop-and-go traffic. That, they say, will make it harder for tourists to get to Amador’s wine region and historic towns like Sutter Creek, and harder for foothill country residents to get to valley jobs and medical appointments.

“State Route 16 is going to be a parking lot in 10 or 20 years,” said John Gedney, head of the Amador County Transportation Commission. “We’ve never argued against anyone’s right to develop as they see fit. We have argued though that some reasonable planning be put in place so you don’t create a congested nightmare.”

An Amador study showed travel time on the 8-mile stretch between South Watt Avenue and Grant Line Road could double when 11 planned new stoplights go in. More than 2,000 mainly foothills residents signed a petition two years ago opposing the plan. “I would hate to see SR 16 look like Sunrise Blvd!” one wrote. “It will kill the little tourism the area has if it takes double the time to get up here,” another said.

Amador wants Caltrans and Sacramento to offer some neighborly consideration, such as minimizing traffic signals along the way. Caltrans, which has said it is willing to “relinquish” the highway west of Grant Line to the locals, is declining to place restrictions on Sacramento’s future management of the road.

Gedney said the situation could lead to a lawsuit.

“I guess we come with pitchforks, torches and busloads of people who are upset about this, if that is what is left to us,” he said. “We have honored the process and we have got nothing in return.”

The drive from historic Jackson to Sacramento, now an hour, could stretch to an hour and a half, and there really is no other route that isn’t a detour for Amador residents, officials there say.

Amador Council of Tourism head Maureen Funk says the county’s $130 million annual tourism economy is its main growth industry, and Jackson Highway is the economic artery, bringing people to the historic Gold Rush towns of Jackson and Sutter Creek, as well as to the popular Shenandoah Valley wine-tasting area, and eateries such as Taste, one of the Sacramento region’s highest-rated restaurants.

“I’m making two trips to Sacramento next week,” Funk said. “We do business out there too. This is a big deal.”

Sacramento County transportation head Mike Penrose said Sacramento has listened to Amador’s concerns. But the counties have different views on what the road’s future should be. “We just do not agree with their vision of what that road should be going through our county,” he said.

Sacramento County officials say they plan to increase the road to six lanes, reduce speeds from 55 mph to 45 mph, and increase the number of intersections with traffic signals from six to about 17. Those traffic signals would be sequenced to make traffic movement smoother, Penrose said. Express buses could share outside lanes with cars. Bike lanes or nearby bike paths will be added. The city of Rancho Cordova will control a slice of the road along its boundary.

At the moment, the fight is focused on the stoplights.

Amador officials say they want to hold Penrose to what they say was a promise he made to state legislators a few years ago that signals would be placed no closer than a half-mile apart. Penrose, however, said that was not a promise, just a statement of expectations.

Jackson Highway corridor

Caltrans plans to turn another section of Highway 16 into a local street – to become the spine for several massive new communities over the next 20 years. The road is a key route to and from Amador County.
Jackson Highway corridor map 
The Sacramento Bee

“It is our intent to stay at about half-mile spacing,” he said. “Closer than that could add more congestion to the corridor.”

There are no plans to alter the highway east of Grant Line Road, which is outside of Sacramento’s designated urban growth boundary and will remain under Caltrans control. The state previously relinquished a 2-mile section of the highway west of South Watt Avenue to the city of Sacramento for development.

The fight between Amador and its more populous neighbor has been simmering for four years. It stems from development plans for a half-dozen major communities on both sides of the highway, also called Jackson Road, in the coming decades.

The Jackson corridor is one of several large undeveloped areas of east county slated for growth, along with projects underway to the south near Elk Grove and to the north in Rancho Cordova and Folsom, along the Grant Line Road corridor.

Several of the Jackson Highway development teams are conducting environmental reviews of their project proposals now, one of the last steps before they will receive county approvals to build.

It does not appear, however, that any of the Jackson area developers are likely to break ground for several more years, at least, Penrose said.

By relinquishing the road, Caltrans will free itself of operations and maintenance costs, and future costs involved in making changes to the road.

It is not unusual for Caltrans to give up ownership of older highways as they are absorbed into growing metropolitan areas. Caltrans relinquished the Freeport Boulevard section of Highway 160 to the city of Sacramento and also turned over Highway 275 to West Sacramento.

Officials with Caltrans said they had planned to turn the highway over to local control this year, but last week announced a delay until late 2019. State officials said studies pertaining to cultural resources will take longer than was anticipated.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak