Editor’s Note: 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.
Commuting from American Canyon to the city of Napa on a recent morning revealed how wrong the term “rush hour” is: a 10-mile trip took 35 minutes and that’s no rush.
My mission was to get from American Canyon Road to the Napa Valley Register office at Soscol Avenue and Vallejo Street in the city of Napa as quickly as possible. I would brave the commute and note both rough patches and possible solutions.
The trip began at 7:40 a.m. with a left turn from American Canyon Road onto Highway 29. The red light turned green and it was on your mark, get set, crawl.
About 5,900 vehicles head north on Highway 29 in American Canyon on a typical rush hour morning, according to the Napa Valley Transportation Authority’s new Travel Behavior Study. The study came to that conclusion in part by tracking drivers on cell phones.
Most of these drivers are apparently from out-of-town. The study concluded that 66 percent of the northbound Highway 29 traffic in American Canyon originates in neighboring Solano County.
Traffic barely moved for the first 1.2 miles, when it moved at all. Drivers got an unwanted, lingering look at a mish-mash American Canyon streetscape – a tidy, modern shopping center, a plumbing business with corrugated metal facade, grassy fields, under-construction apartments, and an ancient, wooden house.
It took 15 minutes to travel little more than a mile. High school cross country runners would leave this traffic in their dust. American Canyon wants to lower the Highway 29 speed limit through town to 35 mph, which on this morning seemed like a joke – 35 mph is supersonic compared to rush-hour reality.
The big backup came from the gauntlet of American Canyon traffic lights. Caltrans previously announced plans to tie these five signals into its traffic management center in Oakland, allowing experts to best move the traffic using algorithms.
“The more green you have, the more you’re moving,” American Canyon Mayor Leon Garcia said at an April City Council meeting.
But on this morning, the lights seemed synchronized to red. Caltrans has yet to launch the traffic signal project.
“The process is in the early stages,” Caltrans spokesperson Janis Maris said in a recent email. “Very rough implementation target is mid-2020.”
At the rate traffic was moving, I thought I might still be stuck in American Canyon in mid-2020.
Another idea is to widen four-lane Highway 29 through American Canyon to six lanes, three each direction. But NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller has said this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
The last of the American Canyon traffic signals is near the Walmart Superstore. After that, speeds picked up to 55 mph and faster.
As an aside to history buffs, the state expanded this stretch of highway to its present four lanes in 1944. More capacity was needed to handle World War II traffic from Napa to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo and to the Benicia Arsenal.
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Back to my commute, a different stream of Solano County traffic entered Highway 29 from Highway 12 in Jameson Canyon, heading to wine country jobs from Fairfield and Vacaville. These drivers joined the Highway 29 parade just in time for the Soscol Junction chokepoint.
Soscol Junction is the signalized intersection of Highway 29 and Highway 221, just before the Grape Crusher statue and Butler Bridge. NVTA’s traffic study estimates that 83,000 vehicles converge here on a typical weekday, 20,500 of them during morning rush hour.
Plans call for spending $64 million to make Highway 29 pass over Highway 221, removing the need for the traffic signal. Otherwise, Caltrans predicts, the worst of the rush-hour backups here could top five minutes by 2025. Groundbreaking could happen in 2021.
“That is just a critical priority for us,” Miller said.
From Soscol Junction, the trip to the Napa Valley Register office went at a good pace. Speeds on typically crowded Soscol Avenue reached 40 mph, though the traffic signals meant frequent stops.
The 10.2-mile commute took 35 minutes and burned 60 cents worth of gasoline in a Prius C that got 57.5 miles to the gallon for this particular trip.
But I was just a commuter wannabe, if there is such a thing. County Supervisor and American Canyon resident Belia Ramos is the real thing, making the trip to her job at county headquarters in the city of Napa.
Her secret to dealing with the congestion is that she takes her children to school in the city of Napa. A longer commute means more time together.
“I’m blessed in that way, that I get to take my mind off the commute frustration and instead use that time to spend it with my three children,” Ramos said.
The morning commute takes her 40 minutes to go 14.6 miles, assuming there are no accidents and the signals are working properly. A bad evening commute can take 55 minutes.
“The mornings are consistent and they are long,” Ramos said. “But the evenings, you never know what you are going to get. You never know when it’s going to start being heavily congested. The one thing for sure is the evenings are incredibly tough.”
Ramos sees rays of hope. One is efforts by the county and American Canyon to complete Devlin Road parallel to Highway 29. That will allow trucks to move through the business parks without using the highway.
She also mentioned those plans to synchronize American Canyon traffic signals and to build Soscol Junction. When it comes to keeping cars moving, the problems are at intersections, she said.
“The investments we make in our intersections are truly the best bang for our buck,” Ramos said.
For the immediate future, though commuters between American Canyon and Napa Valley will just have to persevere. And if Napa Valley residents are heading to the Bay Area during Friday evening rush hour—to a Warriors game, say—the American Canyon bottleneck might be among the worse congestion of the journey.