A series of 25 mph curves and roller coaster dips make Highway 4 between Angels Camp and Copperopolis as challenging as any in California. Many drivers fail that challenge each year.
In 2017 alone, authorities responded to 31 crashes in the short stretch of Highway 4 between Hunt Road and Stallion Way, according to California Highway Patrol Officer Toby Butzler. Of the 31 incidents, two were fatalities: one involved a head-on collision between two cars and another occurred when a motorcyclist crossed the double-yellow lines on the curvy, narrow road.
“It is probably as active as other (highways) of the county,” said Butzler, whose agency responded to 718 accidents and 21 fatalities in the 1,090-square-mile service area that is covered from the San Andreas office last year. “There is a larger flow of traffic from Modesto and other areas. It may seem higher because of the larger amount of drivers.”
For nearly two decades, state and local officials have been working to realign the road, named for the trail used by wagons that carried cargo to and from the Mother Lode in the 1800s. Their goal has been to reduce accidents, improve roadway efficiency and relieve traffic congestion for the 5,000 drivers that use that portion of Highway 4 each day on average.
The 6.5-mile Wagon Trail segment between Bonanza Mine Way on the Copperopolis end and Stockton Road near Angels Camp, remains the only portion of Highway 4 in Calaveras County that is outside current highway design standards due to its narrow lanes and lack of adjacent shoulders, according to the California Department of Transportation.
Construction of a replacement highway, a $78 million job, is expected to begin in 2020, said Caltrans Project Manager Grace Magsayo.
Before construction can begin, however, officials need to finalize highway designs and acquire the land for the project, said Magsayo. Those efforts remain underway.
Money for the project has come from a number of local, state and federal sources, said Calaveras Council of Governments Executive Director Amber Collins, whose agency acts as the funding arm for Caltrans and Calaveras County Public Works, which is also involved.
“The Wagon Trail project is the region’s No. 1 priority project,” said Collins.
Additional funding will be needed moving forward, said Collins. The council has devoted $7.3 million for property acquisitions and construction and about $13 million for the “remaining phases,” she added.
This is after officials completed a $2.1 million environmental document paid for with regional and federal funds, said Collins. The project report was approved early last year.
Collins could not be reached for response to questions about how much more money is needed to fund the project.
Calaveras County Public Works Director Jeff Crovitz said in 2015 that state and federal agencies would pay most of the costs of the realignment. He did not respond to requests for comment in connection with this report.
Construction will focus first on the western sector from Bonanza Mine Road past Pool Station Road. Next would be the middle sector, from Pool Station Road to beyond Stallion Way, and then the eastern segment, from Stallion Way to Stockton Road.
When the project is completed, it will resemble Highway 4 between Angels Camp and Murphys and have the same 55 mph speed limit without any slower curves. Butzler said the roadway may cause fewer accidents, but they could be worse because vehicles would travel at greater speeds.
“The faster you go the greater potential for injury there will be,” said Butzler. “That is the Catch-22. You’re going faster, but crashing less.”
While the highway realignment is expected to improve a dangerous stretch of road, it could come at a cost for some.
Bill Spence, owner of Spence Ranch Feed Supply near Angels Camp, said the realigned highway will cut a little corner off of his 1,500-acre grazing land that extends from the Highway 4 corridor north to Highway 49 where his shop is.
“I can see as time goes along, they do need to build the project,” said Spence. “At the same time, we’re the ones who have to deal with it.”
“Good, bad or indifferent, I’d probably keep (the cut-off corner). Because the way it is now, we own the present Highway 4.”