Goodbye, country road

Rural residents in south Sacramento County challenge proposed expansion of Grant Line Road

For three generations, the Steeles have owned and operated Steele Realty & Investment in Sheldon. The proposed expansion of Grant Line Road could go right through their front porch.

For three generations, the Steeles have owned and operated Steele Realty & Investment in Sheldon. The proposed expansion of Grant Line Road could go right through their front porch.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The community of Sheldon is one of those towns you’ll miss if you blink while driving through. Straddling a section of Grant Line Road near the eastern outskirts of Elk Grove, it’s easy to whiz right by the smattering of rustic businesses that mark this bucolic farming and ranching community.

For years, residents have relied on two-lane Grant Line Road to bring customers to independent, locally owned businesses such as Sheldon Feed & Supply, Bert’s Diner, and The Wrangler—“Sacramento’s best country-western bar.” For almost as long, commuters have used the thoroughfare as a shortcut between Elk Grove and El Dorado Hills. At rush hour, the cars are backed up in both directions for what seems like miles.

Thus the long-simmering conflict between commuters and the community of Sheldon has centered around an ongoing proposal to widen Grant Line Road from two to as many as six lanes. The current proposal, known as the Elk Grove-Rancho Cordova-El Dorado Connector Project, is a $700 million, three-city, two-county effort administered by a joint powers authority. The two-year-old project’s goal seeks to alleviate traffic congestion from Interstate 5 on the south side of Elk Grove up to Highway 50 in El Dorado Hills. The move would cut traffic in the area, at least temporarily. But its critics say it will wipe out local businesses, inconvenience residents and pretty much erase Sheldon from the map.

“There are some businesses that have moved their locations far back enough to allow for the six lanes,” said June Coats, a member of the Sheldon Community Association. The problem is the expansion requires the addition of a frontage road to allow for local access. “If you add the frontage, that pretty much takes them out.”

One of those businesses is the Steele Realty & Investment Company, which has been doing business in Sheldon for more than 40 years. Owner Ray Steele once dreamed of turning Sheldon into a country-western town rivaling Branson, Mo., and his office remains packed with stuffed buffalo heads, American Indian artifacts and other Western memorabilia. Granddaughter Krysta Steele, the third generation to participate in the family business, is blunt with her assessment of the Connector project.

“I don’t like it; it’s going to be one big freeway out there,” she said as cars motored by her family’s establishment. “The traffic from Elk Grove alone is already bad enough.”

The Sheldon Community Association, the Greater Sheldon Road Estates Homeowners Association and local residents have voiced increasing concern about the expansion proposal at recent community-outreach meetings. They’ve resurrected an old plan that they claim will reduce traffic and save their community: a raised toll road that bypasses Sheldon altogether.

A map provided by the Sheldon Community Association shows the bypass starting somewhere near Waterman Road, swinging south along Deer Creek, then meeting back up with Grant Line Road near where it intersects with Calvine Road.

“It would be a causeway,” said Coats, “elevated so that the habitats can still survive underneath there, farmers can still farm there.”

While Sheldon residents are raising objections, Elk Grove vice mayor and JPA board member Pat Hume is reluctant to even speculate on which route the Connector might take.

“It’s really kind of too early to say,” said Hume. “I would definitely want to see the bypass considered and make sure that it has its full airing and vetting and then go from there.”

The JPA is presenting the toll-road proposal, as well as the other options, in a public-outreach effort that has so far included community meetings and a bus tour exploring possible routes the Connector might take.

Nevertheless, with the recent hiring of international development and infrastructure consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, the process to clear the project’s state and federal regulatory hurdles has already begun. Large projects such as the Connector are required to complete an environmental impact report by the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental impact statement by the National Environmental Policy Act. Both reports are scheduled for completion by the end of 2010.

The reports will examine each of the possible routes and their potential impact on the environment. At this point, it’s unclear whether environmental regulators will include the toll-road proposal in their assessments. Vice Mayor Hume thinks that given the faltering economy, a self-funding toll road might prove to be an attractive option.

“I think that’s something we have to look at,” he said. “We definitely have a funding gap. A potential way to bridge that would be through a toll situation, which could result in a public-private partnership.”

The Connector is projected to cost around $700 million, but so far the JPA has identified around $250 million in funds, most of it through Measure A funds approved by voters in 2004. Measure A extended a half-cent sales tax from 1988 that provided money for several regional transportation projects, including maintaining public transit and the construction of a bridge over the American River in Folsom.

“The problem with that is obviously for a toll road to be effective and functional, it has to have very restricted access,” said Hume, meaning it would require onramps and offramps. Sources of additional funding will depend partially on the type of access the Connector allows.

But Tom Shine, a member of the Greater Sheldon Road Homeowners Estates Association, pointed out that the toll road faces a major obstacle: It’s been rejected in the past.

“Even though the city of Elk Grove supported it, it was presented to the [Sacramento Area Council of Governments] board and ultimately the county. It was rejected,” he said, recalling three main objections to the proposal. “It costs too much, it was not consistent with the county general plan and every environmental group in the United States would sue.”

Part of the challenge now for the Sheldon community is simply figuring out how to submit the bypass as a serious consideration. So far, it is not listed as one of the preferred routes by the JPA. Shine also noted that the bypass plan hasn’t been formally reviewed by any engineering or consulting firm to determine its viability.

Preserving Sheldon’s community identity has always been one of the Connector’s major roadblocks. If you can’t go through the town or around it, why not go under? Tom Zlotkowski, executive director at the JPA, said that one of the initial studies for the Connector examined the possibility of a tunnel to bypass Sheldon.

“The tunnel was probably viewed as infeasible just based on the cost,” Zlotkowski said. “It added another $600,000 to the price of the project, which made it around $1.3 billion.”

Another concern about the Connector is that its completion would literally pave the way for further development along the route. As SN&R reported in 2004, local developers were among Measure A’s largest financial supporters, including Reynen & Bardis Communities ($45,000), California Alliance for Jobs ($50,000), and A. Teichert and Son ($45,000).

“This Connector has the potential of being nothing more than another Sunrise Boulevard, with traffic lights at frequent intervals and its attendant stop-and-go traffic,” Shine said.

Once the five-member JPA board settles the Connector’s route, city councils will vote to approve the segments that run through their jurisdictions. For the portion of the Connector running through Sheldon, the Elk Grove City Council has the last word. That makes Sarah Johnson, the chairwoman of the Elk Grove Historic Preservation Committee, a little nervous.

“I think that some of the council members are listening to the wrong people a lot of the time,” she said. Concerned that some Elk Grove City Council members have been a little too receptive to the ideas of developers, Johnson hopes that the upcoming election will bring in a couple of new members that will be “better able to make that choice for the right reasons.”

“Everybody can’t be happy with this,” she said. “We just have to do the best we can.”

Ray Steele, the owner of Steele Reality & Investment who once dreamed of transforming Sheldon into a country-western town, is skeptical the project will ever come to fruition. He’s been hearing about it for 25 years, and nothing’s happened yet.

“I don’t think any of us will be alive by the time they do anything with that road,” he said.