Back-Seat Driver

This Yolo road's like a country song. It's seen heartache and woe. Now, for some love

Highway 16 runs through the Capay Valley in Yolo County.
Highway 16 runs through the Capay Valley in Yolo County. Bee file

Highway 16 in Yolo County is a humble little rural road that could well be a country song, for all the troubles it's seen: floods, fires, rock slides and cars in ditches.

The road, which runs from Woodland through Esparto and the Capay Valley, is narrow with some tight curves and often no shoulders to save errant drivers, leading to more than its share of crashes.

In recent years, the highway has doubled as a fire road, ferrying firefighting vehicles to and from massive wilderness blazes, including last week's County Fire. More typically, though, large, slow-moving farm equipment shares the road with recreational travelers heading to the Cache Creek Casino.

Acknowledging the road's many issues, Caltrans officials say they are about to make $37 million worth of changes along five miles. It's part of an ongoing safety-improvement effort going back two decades.

The work will be focused on two sections. One is between Esparto and Interstate 505. The other is where the highway rolls past the casino. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, which operates the casino, is chipping in $2 million, according to Caltrans.

"Highway 16 is an important travel way with increased traffic," Caltrans' Gilbert Mohtes-Chan said. "You have farmers, tourists, recreational visitors. We project even more traffic" in the future.

A Caltrans report says the road has fewer crashes than it did in the early 2000s, thanks to safety improvements, but it still is more dangerous than it should be, and has seen a recent increase in incidents.

A recent three-year period saw this barrage, according to the state: "48 rear-end crashes; 35 hit object (mainly roadside ditches); 15 broadside; 15 overturn; 7 head-on; 6 sideswipe."

Officials say the lack of shoulders also creates a traffic enforcement problem: CHP officers have trouble finding spots to pull drivers over.

Caltrans will replace soft roadside dirt and gravel with asphalt shoulders to give errant drivers a wide "recovery zone," Mohtes-Chan said. It also will add rumble strips to alert drivers when they are going off the road.

It will reconfigure some of the tighter curves, making them easier to see around, and it will move the road slightly at one spot, getting it away from a low-lying area that frequently floods.

Crews also will add a signal light in Esparto and a roundabout at County Road 89, known as Guy's Corner, near the town of Madison.

Caltrans has been increasingly turning to roundabouts, in place of stop signs, to keep all traffic flowing and to reduce chances of high-speed broadside collisions.

Utility companies have begun moving poles along the road. Caltrans officials say the main roadwork will start later this summer, and may take two full years to finish.