When Main Street Is a Highway

[imgbelt img= smithrivrdanger530.jpg]One Northern California town follows the success of another in slowing down heavy drive-through traffic; now locals can walk safely and visitors are stopping in.

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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.”

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