(Traffic Tales is an occasional feature looking at traffic congestion issues in Napa County. Readers are encouraged to contact reporter Barry Eberling at beberling@napanews with suggested stories.)
Ah, those were the days—back in 1921, before Silverado Trail had its present-day name and long before it had today’s heavy traffic loads, people sometimes called it “the Old Back Road.”
Modern Silverado Trail remains the back road in comparison with its Napa Valley-traversing counterpart, Highway 29. Still, a rush-hour trip on the Trail is no lazy drive in the country, as that quaint nickname from the past might suggest.
The Trail can be a trial. Just ask Sam Kaplan, who has commuted on the road for about 20 years.
“I have seen it get much busier over the years,” he said. “And now it is horrible during the busy season.”
People should get a chance sometime over the next three years to tell the county how to improve Silverado Trail. The item is on the Napa County’s 2019-2022 strategic plan list of things to do.
“Analyze and implement improvements to improve traffic flow on Silverado Trail, including roundabouts, turn pockets, left turn lanes and bicycle facility improvements,” the plan says.
Silverado Trail begins in the city of Napa at Soscol Avenue and runs north 30 miles to Calistoga, hugging the valley’s eastern edge as it passes mile-upon-mile of vineyards and wineries. It is two lanes and is used by motorists and bicyclists alike.
A county traffic study shows an average of 14,290 vehicles daily use Silverado Trail just south of Yountville Cross Road. In comparison, a Caltrans study shows 43,000 vehicles daily use Highway 29 near Yountville a few miles west.
Less traffic makes Silverado Trail a desirable option for many drivers. Still, many Trail regulars would like to see changes for the better.
Roundabouts and other ideas
Kaplan said the southbound afternoon traffic backs up as people try to enter the Trail from Skellenger Lane, Oakville Cross Road and other locations. He recommended adding merge lanes or, better yet, roundabouts at the trouble intersections.
For example, Kaplan would like to see the stop signs and flashing red lights at Deer Park Road replaced with a roundabout.
“Roundabouts work so well all over the world as they naturally flow in the direction that is heaviest traveled, whether it is an a.m. commute or p.m. commute,” he said. “We should have a lot more of them in Napa.”
County Public Works Director Steven Lederer said the Deer Park Road intersection is a candidate for a roundabout. Other possibilities are intersections at the southern cross roads, such as Oakville and Yountville.
One challenge might be finding room for roundabouts without eating up any of the county’s prized agricultural land. Lederer said roundabouts can be designed to take up less space than people might think and that the county owns right-of-way in many places along Silverado Trail.
“The county would be very judicious in analyzing land acquisition, if needed,” Lederer said.
City of Napa resident Bill McGuire makes several trips a week on Silverado Trail to St. Helena. He encounters drivers who go 40 mph in the 55 mph zones, backing up commute traffic.
“I understand tourists wanting to look at everything,” McGuire said. “It just frustrates me they never look into their rear view mirror and see there’s a parade of cars behind them.”
He sees frustrated drivers pass the slow-movers. But in some sections that means crossing a double-yellow line into the lane with oncoming traffic, which is an illegal and dangerous maneuver.
Having more 55 mph signs might remind drivers of the speed limit, McGuire said. Slower drivers might then pull over to the side of the road and let other vehicles pass.
Lederer said adding turn pockets could help Silverado Trail traffic flow. The pockets would help drivers slowing down to make a turn get out of the main traffic lanes.
Two things won’t be happening on Silverado Trail for the foreseeable future – creating a four-lane road and installing traffic lights. Those possibilities are not part of the Board of Supervisors’ policy, given they might detract from the rural wine country atmosphere.
Whatever Silverado Trail improvements the county settles on will cost money. A potential funding source is creating a traffic impact fee on development in the unincorporated county. That item is included in the county’s three-year strategic plan for consideration.
“Once the (fee) is adopted and we have a better idea how much revenue it will actually generate, then we can start talking about exactly which projects, and when, will move to design and construction,” Lederer said.
Meanwhile, he said, the county places a high priority on maintaining the Silverado Trail that exists with paving projects.
Kaplan noted that Silverado Trail paving projects have happened during the day, while Caltrans has done Highway 29 work at night. Daytime work causes delays, he said.
Napa County for now will continue paving during the day.
“Paving in the night time is more dangerous and very costly,” Lederer said. “To get the maximum value for the taxpayer, our preference has always been not to waste money paying for night work.”
The next Silverado Trail paving job will be this summer from Yountville Cross Road to Skellenger Lane. In 2020, the goal is to pave from Trancas Street to Yountville Cross Road. The contractor will be prohibited from working from 3-7 p.m. to avoid the evening commute, Lederer said.
Part of Silverado Trail is within the city of Napa. Some city residents see problems with this urban stretch.
Edith Schwartz lives in the Imola area. She walks to such places as the fairgrounds and local stores, sees no easy alternative to Silverado Trail and finds no convenient bus routes in the area.
But walking along Silverado Trail between Soscol and Lincoln avenues, even though this is within city limits, poses challenges for her.
“Long stretches between lights where there are no sidewalks to walk on one side or the other,” she said. “I’ve been complaining about that for years.”
City Deputy Public Works Director Eric Whan noted that Silverado Trail within city limits also serves as Highway 121. Unlike most of the county Silverado Trail sections, the city section is owned by Caltrans.
“It’s a challenge because we don’t see the state at this time putting the money into providing sidewalks through those areas,” Whan said.
The city of Napa could undertake the project itself.
“But it’s finding the money to do something like that,” Whan said. “We’re trying to balance sidewalk gaps all over town.”
Motorists and cyclists share the Trail
Silverado Trail is also a major cycling route, offering a scenic wine country pedaling tour with less traffic than Highway 29. Sometimes, though, the relationship between drivers and riders is uneasy.
“Making people more aware of cyclists is important,” cyclist Roger Reichenberg said in an email. “Locals and visitors alike seem to forget we are there. They also get very impatient when they have to slow down and wait for a safe place to pass – that’s if they wait at all.”
Some drivers see problems as well. Barbara Tonsberg, who has lived in the Napa Valley since 1942, said in an email that some bicyclists ride side-by-side, with one cyclist hugging the line next to traffic. There are places where the bike lane appears to be less than three-feet wide.
“That is not safe at all for either bikers or drivers,” said Tonsberg, who is concerned about cycling and other athletic events held on Silverado Trail.
Patrick Band, executive director of the Napa County Bicycle Coalition, sees room for improvement south of St. Helena, where Silverado Trail is wider. He suggested having buffered bike lanes – bike lanes with a narrow strip of no-man’s land separating them from traffic lanes.
“Buffered bike lanes are a very affordable and easy-to-install improvement, that provide some additional physical space—using only paint—between bikes and vehicles,” Band said.
St. Helena resident Alan Galbraith regularly cycles on Silverado Trail. He thinks the county needs to do more to clean up the trash.
“The debris in the bicycles lanes is a constant and serious hazard for bicyclists,” Galbraith said in an email.
Silverado Trail in the unincorporated county had 26 collisions involving cyclists from 2006-2013, according to the Napa Valley Transportation Authority’s draft Napa Countywide Bike Plan. A map in the documents shows four were fatalities.
Those who want to take a leisurely bike trip up the Napa Valley without close proximity to cars will have to wait for the Napa Valley Vine Trail to be completed, though that is years from happening. The proposed bike-and-pedestrian trail is to extend from Vallejo to Calistoga, with a few sections already existing.
“In the long-term and upon completion of the Vine Trail, we would like to get the majority of bikers off of Silverado Trail,” Lederer said.