Busy Soscol Junction where highways 29 and 221 meet near the Grape Crusher statue could end up with one large roundabout or two smaller ones to ease rush-hour congestion.
No roundabouts would be on Highway 29 itself. The highway would rise up on an overpass, no longer burdened with the traffic signals that cause long backups.
Underneath the overpass is where the roundabout or roundabouts would be. They would control traffic as it enters Highway 29 either northbound or southbound or travels between Soscol Ferry Road and Highway 221.
“It should work and would solve a big problem that everybody experiences at this location,” Caltrans Senior Environmental Planner Wahida Rashid said.
Caltrans and the Napa Valley Transportation Authority asked for opinions at a Thursday evening meeting attended by a couple dozen people. Whether this version of Soscol Junction begins construction in a couple of years at a cost of $35 million or more depends partly on the response.
“We are testing the waters – do you like it? Do you not like it at all?” Rashid said.
Consultant Heather Anderson of GHD Inc., citing a federal study, said 68 percent of people tend to dislike roundabouts before one is installed. After the roundabout is in, 73 percent said they like it.
American Canyon resident Jason Kishineff is among those skeptical 68 percent, at least for the moment.
“I’m really cautious,” he said after the meeting. “It makes me nervous.”
He drives through the Soscol Junction intersection about twice a week. He sees a better way to improve travel time between Napa and American Canyon. He’d rather see money spent on adding lanes to Highway 29.
“It would make a bigger difference,” Kishineff said.
Steven Miller of Napa grew up with roundabouts in New Jersey.
“There were large ones and small ones, fast ones and slow ones,” Miller said. “You do get used to them.”
He’s still trying to figure out if he wants roundabouts at Soscol Junction, Miller said. He noted someone traveling from Soscol Ferry Road to northbound Highway 29 would have to cross two lanes of Highway 221 roundabout traffic.
Kelly Hirschberg of Caltrans said traffic counts done a few years ago found Soscol Junction rush-hour backups of 90 seconds to two minutes. If nothing is done, the waits by 2039 at the traffic signal could reach seven or eight minutes.
Caltrans and local transportation officials have searched for a Soscol Junction solution for about 15 years. Their original idea was to build a flyover that would take Highway 221 traffic on a curving, aerial trip before having it merge with southbound Highway 29 traffic.
The idea proved controversial when Caltrans announced details in 2015. That 35-foot-tall concrete flyover was too ugly to be a Napa Valley gateway, some said. Cyclists would face danger alongside vehicle traffic on a flyover, others said.
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“We heard you loud and clear,” Hirschberg said.
Napa County Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Patrick Band came to Thursday’s meeting and looked at the roundabout proposals. He prefers roundabouts with slow-moving traffic to a flyover with traffic moving at 55 mph.
“I think it’s a significant improvement,” Band said.
Not many cyclists pedal through today’s signalized Soscol Junction, Band said. Perhaps a handful of cyclists make the trip every day as they commute.
“Part of that is the rest of the corridor is not designed for bikes,” Band said.
Napa County isn’t going to see the entire Highway 29 corridor made bike-friendly immediately, Band said. But a bike-friendly Soscol Junction would be a start. He noted the cyclists will eventually be able to use a Napa Valley Vine Trail segment planned for the adjacent airport industrial area.
Miller said the planned Highway 29 overpass could impair the view, an echo of the complaints over the now-jettisoned idea of a flyover.
Anderson said Highway 29 drivers wouldn’t see the side of the structure, though drivers on Highway 221 would. The overpass would be about 25 feet tall, about 10 feet lower than the flyover.
Transportation officials realize they might have to sell the roundabout idea to the public. Anderson made the case, saying roundabouts have 37 percent fewer collisions than signalized intersections because traffic moves slower in them. Fatal accidents fall 90 percent.
California created Soscol Junction in 1981 as part of its Southern Crossing project when it opened the nearby Butler Bridge for Highway 29. Before that, highway traffic traveled up the east side of the Napa Valley, took Imola Avenue west and then continued on to Sonoma County or Upvalley.
The original idea in the 1970s was to have an interchange from the start at Soscol Junction. But money for the project proved tight and transportation officials settled for the cheaper solution of traffic signals.
By 2002, Napa County officials were talking about the flyover solution. Now the idea has turned into roundabouts, with the two possible configurations.
“What’s going to drive which project is selected is the community and feedback we receive from you,” NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said at Thursday’s meeting.
People can send comments on the proposed roundabout to Rashid at Wahida.Rashid@dot.ca.gov or to Caltrans District 4, Office of Environmental Analysis, attention Wahida Rashid, 111 Grand Avenue Mail Station-8B, Oakland, CA 94612.
Whatever happens at Soscol Junction, drivers will apparently have to get used to roundabouts. Roundabouts are to be build at First Street and California Boulevard and at the five-way Silverado Trail intersection in the city of Napa. Caltrans plans to build one at highways 12 and 113 in Solano County near Rio Vista.
Anderson said the state highway system has 31 roundabouts and another 47 are planned.