Phil Carville: A Caltrans disaster on Hwy. 174

Editor’s note: Phil Carville is one of my favorite locals. He’s held some big titles including  president, Northstar-at-Tahoe; partner, Olympic Valley Associates, Squaw Valley; and president, Carville Sierra. Now he’s chairman of the South Yuba Club. 

Last week, Phil came to our house in Nevada City, we had coffee and caught up. We’re both Cal grads, and he worked at Fibreboard, which I wrote about as a reporter at The Chronicle in the ’80s. Fibreboard owned and operated Northstar. Phil also proposed a “smart” housing project at Loma Rica Ranch, which ran into a local political buzzsaw.

We reminisced, and he told me about a recent concern: Caltrans plans to widen Hwy. 174. It’s a project we’re also passionate about. Our magazine has promoted this “road less traveled” here and here.

Phil has raised some legitimate concerns about the plan. He wrote an opinion column, which he submitted to The Union, me and others. Here it is:

Caltrans has plans to straighten, level and drastically widen a 2-mile section of beautiful Highway 174. This project is slated for 2018, would create an ugly scar of a road and will cost more than $28 million — or about $15 million per mile.

Yes, the road could use some safety and bike lane improvements, but the Caltrans proposal does not solve the basic problems. It creates new safety issues, will increase speeds, does not specifically provide for bike lanes and will cost property owners with road frontage millions of dollars in reduced property values.

Caltrans could make a real contribution to vehicular safety and alternative transportation while preserving the beauty of Nevada County, but this proposal does not do that.

Biased safety statistics — The Caltrans safety justification is based on just three years of accident history – 2010/11 to 2012/13 – in which three persons died and 25 were injured. However, the most recent four years of data show that there were no fatalities and only 12 persons injured. Caltrans focused on only three years and has biased the statistics and conclusion.

When people get together in good faith with an objective to listen to each other, great things can happen … Caltrans and citizens of Nevada County working together.

In the Caltrans three-year study: one fatality was alcohol related when a man drove off the road; the other was a mother (infant daughter) who became distracted, crossed into the oncoming lane and into another car.

We must do all we can to reduce accidents but the Caltrans proposal increases speeds and would not have eliminated the above fatalities.

Bad design — Caltrans has proposed a cleared swath 80 feet wide: two paved 12-foot travel lanes, plus two paved 8-foot recovery lanes, plus two 20-foot “cleared areas” plus additions for cut or fill. This is an unnecessary, huge naked scar of a road. Most of Highway 49 is not close to 80-feet wide. Caltrans proposes building a roadway wider than much of Highway 49 in this 2-mile section of Highway 174.

Huge scar, 1,700 mature trees removed and perhaps a thousand more under the diameter of 6 inches (the proposal apparently does count those). Welcome to “Clear-Cut 174.”

Poor property owners — Those persons with property on the highway will suffer huge declines in property values. In some cases, the roadbed will be within 20-30 feet of their front door. A property could easily lose $50,000 or more in resale value. If 50 property owners lose $50,000 each in value, then collectively they will lose $2.5 million. Caltrans forgot to tell them that.

Institutional inertia — Caltrans could have done a much better design, accomplished safety objectives, improved the environment and provided for bike lanes. Why did it not do so? Probably because 90 percent of the funding comes from the federal government which mandates interstate-like design standards. Highway 174 is a beautiful, local, scenic road — not an interstate highway in Kansas.

Better design — Caltrans could leave the vertical alignment as it is and reduce the horizontal realignment. It could widen travel lanes to 12-feet and provide for 8-foot gravel (not paved) recovery areas. It could build a separate, offset, paved eight-foot wide bike path — like the American River Parkway between Folsom and Sacramento or as is so often built in Germany, France and Italy.

Huge cost savings — Let’s say Caltrans was willing to talk with citizens of Nevada County before plowing ahead with this paved behemoth. With a reduction of nearly 200,000 square feet of pavement, elimination of several hundred thousand cubic yards of dirt and a cost savings of $10 million to $15 million, Nevada County could have a great, new, safe, rural road with a bike path that would set a new standard for future road improvements in our county and perhaps the state.

We don’t need any more governmental $50,000 toilet seats or “Bridges to Nowhere.” Let’s be smart and save the taxpayers a few bucks. This project is a toilet seat.

Be creative — Caltrans … we love you, but we don’t like this ill-conceived project. Let’s put the design “on hold” and have a community charrette on the plan. Charrettes are now used for creative planning of roads, neighborhoods and other built environments. When people get together in good faith with an objective to listen to each other, great things can happen … Caltrans and citizens of Nevada County working together.

Several hundred citizens are organized, concerned and circulating petitions about this project. Visit They want to talk. So let’s meet and talk.

We can do something great if we just talk with one another. Let’s be great!