Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Limited options for road trips out of county

Good luck turning left if you’re driving south on Calistoga Street through Middletown during the evening commute. You can wait an awfully long time for a break in the stream of northbound headlights — finally trying to beat the yellow when the stoplights change at Wardlaw or at State Route 175.

According to data from the U.S. Census 2000, there are 1,415 Lake County residents who commute to Sonoma County. An additional 762 commute to Napa County.

These statistics were arranged into a map by Current Economics Statistics Group, Labor Market Information Division, California Employment Development Department.

An accompanying map shows that additional commuters travel the other way: 323 residents from Sonoma County and 58 from Napa County. The document can be viewed online at

The main route of access is SR 29 over Mount St. Helena. For approximately nine miles between the Napa County line and the base of Mount St. Helena, the road is subject to tight turns.

Observant drivers may notice signs proclaiming the Earle W. Wrieden Memorial Highway on SR 29 between a point north of the Lake County line and SR 175 in downtown Middletown. Wrieden spearheaded the creation of passing lanes on SR 29 over Mount St. Helena.

During 24 years of service on the Lake County Board of Supervisors, Wrieden devoted his primary focus to Lake County’s roads and highways. He was responsible for widely-traveled county roads being adopted into the state highway system.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 18, authored by then-Senator Wes Chesbro, was officially chaptered July 10, 2001 by the California Secretary of State.

But even with its passing lanes that help streamline the commute, travel on SR 29 over Mount St. Helena is not without unique hazards.

Rainfall-dampened roadways always pose the risk that one or more drivers will hit a turn too fast and everyone’s commute will be delayed by a rollover or two.

Enormous charter buses and haulers of freight pose an especially significant hazard even when road surfaces are dry. I’ve heard from people who were traveling behind one of these oversized vehicles and I have been in this position myself. Frequently their trailers take turns too wide into oncoming lanes of traffic.

I’ve also heard from motorists who were in the other lane and were nearly struck head-on.

Jackknifed big rigs bring traffic to a halt on SR 29. One time my mother was driving down “the hill” and passed a jackknifed rig — she happened to make it through just before the road was shut down so that the jackknifed rig could be cleared.

Calistoga Water trucks are the only large vehicles that ought to be permitted on this nine-mile stretch. I’ve traveled behind enough of them to note that their drivers are familiar with the road; they take the tight turns safely without drifting into the opposite lane.

Just as haulers are advised not to travel Clear Lake’s north shore along SR 20, and to instead take SR 29 between SR 20 and SR 53, I think long-distance haulers of freight ought similarly to be advised to avoid SR 29 over Mount St. Helena. This still leaves two viable routes under safer roadway conditions: SR 20 east from Highway 101 or west from Interstate 5. Roadwork improvements to the “gooseneck” turns between Clearlake Oaks and Williams and at the SR 20/53 “Y” greatly enhance this highway’s safety as a main access to the County of Lake.

Published Nov. 5, 2008 in the Lake County Record-Bee

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