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Rural Traffic

Light traffic is seen along Silverado Trail, north of Napa, on a weekday morning. Napa County will likely have to make do with two-lane roads in most parts of the county, despite future traffic growth, according to officials. The goal is preservation of the county's rural character.

Napa County is looking for ways to ease traffic woes in the unincorporated areas – including the heart of Napa Valley wine country—without making a whole lot of major road expansions.

The county is updating the circulation part of its general plan. As bureaucratic as that might sound, the bottom line is trying to keep traffic moving and safe on such thoroughfares as Highway 29 and Silverado Trail.

But those who are sick and tired of sitting in traffic will find no magic, overnight solutions to their predicament in the document.

“In most areas of the county, the roadway system that exists today is intended to be the roadway system of the future, supplemented by more efficient methods for moving people around,” the proposed update says.

Major proposed road projects are limited to the more-urban south county and have been mentioned publicly before. For example, one idea is building an interchange on Highway 29 at the Highway 12 entrance to Jameson Canyon, if the money can be found.

In the Upvalley, Napa County would continue making do with the roads it has to preserve the area’s rural character. Smaller improvements there could include such things as adding turn lanes and perhaps even roundabouts.

Napa County Planning Commission Chairwoman Anne Cottrell said a tension exists between having the most efficient road network and preserving rural character. The most efficient network might be six lanes extending up the Napa Valley, but the county doesn’t want that.

“I think that’s worth calling out in the document, that those (goals) are going to fight sometimes,” Cottrell said.

Commissioner Michael Basayne said Napa County faces unique traffic challenges. It is almost like a hybrid of what the Bay Area and a national park experience.

The county Planning Commission last week held a workshop on the circulation plan update. More public meetings will come with more chances for public comment before the county Board of Supervisors adopts a revised document.

The Upvalley has two-lane country roads handling city-style traffic as people head to jobs, wineries and other destinations. Highway 29 near St. Helena handles 25,000 trips daily, according to Caltrans.

That’s a lot less than the 47,000 daily on Highway 29 near American Canyon. But the American Canyon stretch has two more lanes and it’s jammed during rush hours.

Napa County isn’t aiming for perfection. It proposes settling for at least a D level of service for most major rural roads and intersections. Level of service is graded A through F, with a D indicating intersection waits of 25 seconds to 35 seconds.

However, the draft circulation plan proposes to accept a service level of F on unincorporated portions of Highway 29 between Yountville and Calistoga and on Highway 12/121 between Napa and Sonoma County. That means waits of 50 seconds and longer at intersections.

A challenge the county wants to take on is reducing solo driving trips. About 78 percent of local commuters drive solo, compared to 67 percent in the Bay Area as a whole and 74 percent in California, the draft document said.

Napa County wants to promote mass transit, carpools, vanpools, bicycling and walking. It wants developers to build adequate parking, but not excessive parking, that could encourage more driving.

Commissioner Terry Scott sees a mass transit challenge, given Napa County isn’t a densely populated area such as Concord where buses might have a bigger impact.

“Mass transportation doesn’t seem to be working effectively for us at all,” Scott said. “We have these big buses – frankly, I’ve never seen more than five or 10 people in buses that seat 40 to 50.”

Basayne talked about experimenting with higher-end shuttles, with attention paid to such amenities as comfortable seats.

“We’re going to become more reliant on mass transit in the future,” he said. “It just needs to be more attractive to us.”

Commissioner Jeri Hansen said reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing congestion can in some cases be addressed separately. For example, the county can install more chargers to encourage the use of electric cars to reduce emissions.

“I just want to make sure it’s not just about reducing the number of vehicles, because we may not be able to do that quickly,” Hansen said.

Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners said the number one goal in his group’s three-year plan is reducing traffic. Napa Valley Vintners represents more than 500 members.

“It’s bad for commerce if people come here and have a bad experience and spend all day sitting on Highway 29 or the Trail in their cars,” Stults said. “Also, our members are also locals and residents.”

Stults put in a good word for roundabouts, which he experienced while in the United Kingdom.

“Roundabouts are not the thing to be feared that so many people here in Napa think they are,” Stults said. “They could really be helpful,”

American Canyon City Manager Jason Holley said the county needs to work with the cities and towns on traffic issues. The roads, greenhouse gases and travelers don’t necessarily stop at jurisdictional boundaries.

“The solutions to a lot of our challenges are going to be through a regional approach,” Holley said.

One suggested strategy in the proposed circulation plan is to increase the local supply of affordable housing so fewer local employees commute into the county from Solano County and other areas.

Development applicants in keeping with state policies could be asked to show they can cut expected vehicle miles generated by their projects by 15 percent. Otherwise, a project would be saddled with a “significant impact” requiring the preparation of an environmental impact report.

Raising money for even modest traffic improvement projects can be a challenge. The county is contemplating a possible traffic impact fee on rural development, though details have yet to emerge.

The idea of updating the general plan circulation element arose during a 2015 “growth summit” held between the county Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.