Back-Seat Driver

Caltrans wants to spend $28 million fixing this highway, but locals call it overkill

A sinewy stretch of mountain highway in Nevada County has become the site this summer of a $28 million tug-of-war between the state and local residents.

The crux: How far should the state go in altering a scenic byway to make it safer?

Caltrans wants to straighten and widen a 2-mile section of Highway 174, the two-lane, thin-shouldered connector between Grass Valley and Colfax. That includes leveling some hills, changing the angle of the road in some places, adding an 8-foot-wide shoulder and adding as much as a dozen more feet of open space to serve as a recovery area for drivers who drift beyond the shoulder.

Caltrans launched the project a few years ago, officials say, after residents contacted the state saying they took their lives in their hands just leaving their driveways.

“We saw that there was a problem and we saw we could do something,” Caltrans spokeswoman Liza Whitmore said.

State officials say that a slightly longer segment of the road in that area – from the Rollins Reservoir or Bear River area to Grass Valley – has averaged 41 crashes a year over the past dozen or so years, nearly half of them causing injury or death.

The state has set a construction date in 2019 and a finish date of 2020.

But local residents and some county leaders say the plan looks like overkill to them. The group, which has launched a Save Highway 174 campaign, says the state is pushing the plan on them without adequate discussion of alternatives.

The state will have to cut down numerous trees, they complain, and notably will require several dozen property owners to sell portions of their land.

Some even say they fear a wider, straighter road could encourage more speeding and more crashes.

Hank Weston, chairman of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, sent the state a letter this summer asking Caltrans to rethink the project, and to listen more to local concerns.

Caltrans officials acknowledge the project will require buying land from 40 or more residents, but they say the added space is needed to eliminate tight blind curves near driveways and crossroads. They are willing to negotiate with property owners over exactly how wide of a roadside buffer they should have at given locations.

The highway speed limit will stay 45 miles per hour, Caltrans’ Whitmore said.

Ann Barghouty of Grass Valley is among those who support Caltrans’ plans. Her son was killed when his car went off the road there and hit a tree seven years ago.

“They don’t understand,” she said of opponents. “The road is tilted, it’s wobbly. You don’t have a chance to get back control. It’s like being on a roller coaster.”

Area Assemblyman Brian Dahle held a conference call last week between Caltrans representatives and Nevada County Supervisor Heidi Hall. The two sides agreed that Caltrans will come to an upcoming Nevada County board meeting, probably in October, for a more thorough discussion.

Hall said she agrees with Caltrans that the highway should be made safer. But she said she and others feel Caltrans has not yet fully engaged with residents, even though it has held community meetings, nor has it responded to their requests for alternative proposals.

“They want to tweak the design and we want them to rethink the design,” she said.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak