When Main Street Is a Highway
A decade ago, the typical driver through downtown Willow Creek, California, would have been pushing the accelerator to 65 miles per hour and along a five-lane stretch of Highway 299 might pass other vehicles at 70, 75, 80.
But in 2001 things started to change. Those five lanes were reduced to three, with bike lanes added to either side of the road. Two years later, continuous sidewalks were added to allow pedestrians to move between downtown shops. Sycamore trees were planted to show cars this was a neighborhood, not merely the intersection of Highways 299 and 96. Traffic slowed further, which legally allowed the speed limit to be lowered to 35 miles per hour. Pedestrian crosswalks were drawn.
A community downtown was created.
Driving through Willow Creek today, the improvements don’t look like anything exceptional. But that’s because it simply looks like a downtown ought to - calm, contiguous and safe for foot traffic. What might seem like a simple project took years to be realized and served as an epiphany for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).
As an unincorporated area of Humboldt County, Willow Creek, pop. 1700, has been a gold-mining and timbering town for more than 150 years, but it has no city council or mayor to advance its case for transportation dollars. Instead, elected officials in the local water district act as the closest thing to city representatives.
It was their efforts over more than three years that finally yielded funding for the transportation improvements, dubbed the SHADE project - Scenic Highway And Downtown Enhancement. (In fact, trees and greenery in this lush region of Northern California are abundant; only the center of Willow Creek was bald – a stretch of pavement -- until the project was completed.)
The idea of making road improvements had been in the air a long time. Around 2000 “an opportunity came up to apply for a grant from Caltrans through the Humboldt County Association of Governments,” said architect Joan Briggs. She and Terry Suprahan, a consultant specializing in rural community development projects, had been hired by the Community Services District to work on Willow Creek’s problem.
“We threw our name in the hat,” said Briggs. “They funded 10 projects. We were number 11.”
Around that time, Caltrans District 1 Manager Rick Knapp was looking at plans for a road-resurfacing project that would include Willow Creek. Knapp realized that the town could benefit from a simple change in how traffic lanes were painted: five lanes were reduced to three with a bike lane on either side. For Knapp, who managed transportation projects for Humboldt and several neighboring counties, the decision was a professional turning point in an agency that typically looked at road building only in terms of safety and traffic flow.
“We started thinking about context-sensitive solutions,” Knapp said. Looking at the specific conditions in a community to determine the best roadway construction for that place became a guiding principle of Knapp’s work. While the context-sensitive solutions concept had already become a popular topic for landscape architects, Knapp brought the idea to Caltrans engineers. His paper on context-sensitive solutions would influence the policies of other state transportation authorities as well.
It took over a year before another opportunity arose to apply for funding: a Transportation Enhancement Activities (TEA) grant from the California Department of Transportation. Those working on Willow Creek’s application weren’t optimistic.
“We had figured there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that we’d be funded,” said Marc Rowley, then general manager for the Willow Creek Community Services District. “There were over 400 applications,” he said; “I think we came in second.”
TEA supplied $469,000, and a sympathetic private citizen donated $75,000 more.
Tom O’Gorman, a farmer with a passion for trees, helped to select the London Plane Trees, a type of sycamore, that now line the road.
“We chose those trees because they’re hardy and malleable,” O’Gorman said. “They can be pruned severely to nice effect.” The trees will eventually grow tall and provide ample shade to the downtown, where average temperatures reach 96 degrees during July.
Initially, not everyone in Willow Creek supported the project.
“One of my jobs was to go to every single business and convince them that this hair-brained idea of taking federal money would make the street and businesses better,” Rowley said. “We actually got very strong buy-in and got it down to just two [business owners] who were opposed.”
Norm Evans, who owned a service station and Subway restaurant in Willow Creek, was critical.
“One of the concerns I had was that the trees would block out the businesses and that people who were passing through really couldn’t see what was there,” said Evans. Age 74, he has since retired and now lives in Oregon. “The other concern I had was the dropping leaves. But neither one of those concerns really was a concern in the end. It turned out fine and the town looks more attractive.”
Suprahan knows how rarely these types of projects succeed. Truck drivers prefer to get to their destinations faster, legislators prefer to spend less, and rural towns usually can’t build the political chorus that urban areas can. But he also knows that with persistence, a seemingly simple project can be priceless for a community like Willow Creek.
“The more that highways improve and expand, the more divided a small town is unless you slow that traffic down and show the people coming through that there’s a place and people here and that they matter,” said Supahan. “Otherwise we all want to speed through.”
Eight years after the Willow Creek project’s completion, the Highway 101 community of Smith River is seeking to change its section of the roadway. An unincorporated community in Del Norte County, Smith River is situated in the northwest corner of the state. Smith River Rancheria is one of the native homes of the Tolowa Tribe, whose territory extends into Southern Oregon.
“Ever since they put Highway 101 right in the middle of our reservation, it’s been a danger having people living on either side,” said Kara Miller, Chairperson of the Smith River Rancheria Tribal Council.
All of the major businesses in town, including the tribe’s casino, a health clinic, service station, and community center, border the highway.
Cheryl Willis, the deputy District 1 director for planning and local assistance, has been working with tribal leaders to consider potential improvements along this Highway 101 corridor. Before the Willow Creek project took place, Willis said, and before Knapp’s paper on context-sensitive transportation planning, Caltrans would not have been as receptive to the plan for Smith River.
For Willow Creek, “we looked to build something appropriate for the area,” said Willis. Since its success and Knapp’s policy initiative, “there have been a lot of changes within Caltrans,” she said.
Laura Tillman Willis, members of the Smith River Rancheria, and other community entities have come together for planning meetings to gather alternatives for roadway improvements and to assess which ones are financially and logistically possible. First, a Road Safety Audit was done with members of Caltrans, the Federal Highway Administration, Del Norte County and the Smith River Rancheria Tribal Council. Currently, an engineering feasibility study is underway, to see which ideas will work before drafting a final plan for a project. Roundabouts, tribal artwork, and landscape designs are being considered to improve safety. Willis called it “a grand experiment.”
The Smith River Rancheria also plans to make improvements to North and South Indian Road, which shares a major intersection with Highway 101. A bike and walking path are planned as well as sidewalks to make the roadway safer for pedestrians.
Simple solutions to improving pedestrian safety, like lowering the speed limit or putting in stop signs, are not as easy as they appear: it is illegal to lower the speed limit arbitrarily in California, and, contrary to what one would assume, stop lights can actually increase pedestrian danger because drivers often speed off when the signal turns green.
What’s indisputable is that Smith River has a transportation problem. Standing at the intersection of Indian Road and Highway 101, you don’t have to wait long before seeing a pedestrian sprint across the roadway with no crosswalk or break in traffic to offer protection. From Caltrans’ perspective, the highway still meets engineering safety standards, but the agency’s approach has changed. Now, Caltrans is looking beyond the merely “safe” to what is livable.
Smith River has become the “before” picture to Willow Creek’s “after.” Now Smith River leaders are looking forward to the day when they will see their efforts come to fruition.
“There are just so few of us and few resources,” said Kara Miller, a lifelong resident of her tribe’s ancestral homeland. “If we can all work together there’s so much we can get done with the little that we have.”