It is 12.6 miles from Agua Caliente Road in Fetters Hot Springs, to Melita Road in Santa Rosa. So says Google Maps.
It is a familiar commute route to hundreds – if not thousands – of people who travel up and down the Valley of the Moon each workday. And to many thousands more of annual visitors, who come from around the country and around the world, it is a stunningly scenic, if short, drive through Wine Country.
On a bicycle, traveling mostly slower than 20 miles per hour, the scenery is even more stunning, but the route sometimes feels a thousand miles long because the entire trip is wrapped in terror.
Highway 12 is, and (we hope) always will be, a two-lane road, because most of us understand that the four-lane alternative would destroy the beauty and the spirit of the Valley. The price we pay for being freeway-free is frequent congestion and traffic speeds that are often closer to 30 than to the posted 50 miles per hour.
It would be easier to live with the congestion, however, if it came with substantial bike lanes, so that pedalers could safely transit the same route cars take, but more slowly and with no carbon pollution.
As it is, anyone riding Highway 12 from Melita Road to Agua Caliente is running a substantial risk of injury or death because there are frequent stretches where what passes for a paved bike lane shrinks to less than a foot wide or disappears entirely.
That’s true notwithstanding the fact that Caltrans, which has repaved in the recent past almost every segment of those 12.6 miles, could easily have added a few extra feet of safety for bicycles attempting the dangerous passage from Sonoma to Santa Rosa.
But despite the fact that Caltrans has a special Bicycle Facilities Unit dedicated to the mission of “improving safety and convenience for bicyclists,” there is not a significant budget or evidence of a very proactive policy to improve bike lane infrastructure on state highways. As evidence of that, we need only look at Highway 12.
But all that may change. Last week we learned that Caltrans’ failure to widen the route may have masked a wiser, longer-term strategy for a far more ambitious, safe and satisfying alternative. As revealed in a press release from Sonoma County Regional Parks, Caltrans has announced a $190,575 “community-based transportation planning grant” to study the installation of a Class I, fully-segregated bike lane paralleling Highway 12, but not on it.
Long a part of the fantasy life of most Sonoma Valley cyclists, the possibility of such a trail ever becoming a reality seemed about as likely as completion of the sidewalks, lanes and lights project on Highway 12 in the Springs.
But now that the Springs miracle is about to come true, perhaps there is good reason to raise expectations for another one. We can imagine that a Class I lane the length of Sonoma Valley would be a boon not only to local cyclists, but that it could become a tourist attraction in its own right, especially given the number of wineries along the route that could cater to cycling wine tasters.
The planning grant is extraordinary good news and we hereby vow that, if Caltrans can bring this plan to reality in something well short of 20 years, we will try extra hard to not say any more mean things about them.