A City If You Can Keep It: What do we want from Grant Avenue?

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

Grant Avenue is the gateway to Winters. We often hear Winters and Highway 128 referred to as the gateway to Napa.

We can classify surface streets as either a Street or a Road. Roads move cars efficiently from point A to point B. Streets are mediums for prosperity. Unless part of a name, my use of both words in this column is intentional and should not be read interchangeably.

Streets and roads have historically been spaces for cars where people are guests. But we have to live here, so we should be planning them as spaces for people that accommodate cars. Arteries of our human habitat, if you will.

Do we want a road with four lanes with trees on either side, and a landscaped median divider that shoots people from 505 to Railroad and funnels down to two lanes at the roundabout? Or is a street design more like Grant in front of the high school where people and cars intermingle at slower speeds a better design for our intended development at the entrance to town?

Grant Avenue has a planned design for cars that is a boulevard — a road. In addition to conflicting with the aesthetics of the rest of town, the design aspects are inappropriate for our intent. It has features that are better suited for a bedroom community, not a community with safe, prosperous streets.

Fully developed, Grant Avenue between highway 505 and the roundabout will have homes and apartments to the north, a grocery store or two, shopping, and restaurants on both sides.

We want people visiting Winters to stop and spend money at our businesses, to keep them vibrant, not speed past our first business district. The resulting tax revenue shifts the funding burden of city services off of residents. Also, residents will want, and need, to cross Grant Avenue on foot.

However, mixing people and cars are inherently dangerous. And the design of a street or road determines the behavior of drivers and levels of risk.

Driving is a System One activity (a task that doesn’t require deliberate mental process, e.g. 1+1=2). In the days after reading this, be aware of how you drive. The speed you drive is really determined by how comfortable you feel on the street, road or highway. Not by a sign with numbers on the shoulder. This is often why people speed. The street or road communicates information to you on how fast you should drive.

Have you ever noticed that you slow down on Grant between Railroad and Fouth and your speed starts to pick up once you get to the Fruit Stand? That is the road design communicating to you.

In May 2022, a speed study was done on Neimann Street, and the 85th percentile of how fast people were driving was measured. We heard a discussion about road design, and that we can set the speed limit to 5 mph above or below that speed. We chose to set it at 5 mph below which was 5 mph above the old speed limit. So, the designed speed of Niemann is still 5 mph higher than the posted speed limit.

The 85th percentile speed is the speed that a street or road is intentionally or unintentionally designed for. Most people will drive this speed regardless of posted speed limits.

We do not have enough police officers to sit on major streets and just enforce the speed limit all day. Speed limit signs allow speeding tickets, but do not slow drivers. This underscores the importance of design.

The residents of Baker Street and Senior Apartments want to be able to safely walk across Grant Avenue to shop at Lorenzo’s Market. Likewise, we will want the same for the intended Farmstead Development residents and the potential Grocery Outlet across from them. The Grant Avenue street design should reflect this.

The 2017 update to our circulation plan indicates that peak traffic on the section of Grant in question will almost double when the town is completely built out per the General Plan. So, we can estimate that travel time from the roundabout to 505 would also double if we kept Grant at two lanes.

Any local objection to this design change will likely be rooted in traffic flow and circulation. So, the question becomes, do we care more about speed and leaving town 56 seconds faster? Or are safety and quality of life more important?

The answer depends on if we want to prioritize maintaining a community, or enabling future bedroom residents to commute out of town faster

The large regulatory roadblock to a Grant Avenue redesign is CalTrans. CalTrans owns Grant Avenue because it is also State Highway 128. It signed off on the current plan and it is notoriously hard to get staff to change their mind.

So why should they care about 1 mile of the rural road out of the millions of miles in California? I think the Scenic Highway program may be the answer if their view of street/road design hasn’t changed.

I believe there are opportunities to convince CalTrans to approve a design change. But there is also the very real possibility that we are stuck with what we have and nothing we do will convince CalTrans to approve a change. But just because something is hard, does not mean it is impossible and we should not try.

I do not think the currently planned design is one that we still want, nor one that works with our goals. If we want future Winters to be the best possible version of themselves for the residents, we have to make some adjustments.

As my former First Sergeant liked to tell me, “Sir, the simplicity of thought does not equal a simplicity of action.” Yet we found a way because we had to achieve our goals, as we should do here.

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