Biggest traffic jam this weekend in Northern California? Try Tahoe

A skier pauses near the Tamarack Express chair lift at Heavenly Valley ski resort on Jan.17, 2017.
A skier pauses near the Tamarack Express chair lift at Heavenly Valley ski resort on Jan.17, 2017. rpench@sacbee.com

Where’s the biggest traffic jam in Northern California this weekend? Try Tahoe. Or better yet, stay away.

With sunny skies, clear roads and plenty of snow, tens of thousands of skiers, snowboarders, families and other recreationalists are hitting mountain highways this weekend, creating hourlong traffic jams in some areas around Lake Tahoe.

“It’s ‘blue bird weather’ up there this weekend,” Caltrans spokeswoman Deanna Shoopman said. Any sunny weekend after a few weeks of heavy snowfall, “everybody has the same idea,” she said.

The result this weekend, much like the recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, is traffic backups at numerous crossroads and main corridors, notably in Truckee, where Highway 89 heads to Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, and on the often congested roads in the South Lake Tahoe and Stateline area.

Tahoe traffic is typically worse on summer weekends, basin transportation officials say. But this winter, with the huge amounts of snow and a stronger economy, Tahoe visitors are experiencing heavy weekend traffic during the mornings when ski resorts open, and evenings when skiers head home.

“Between the recession ending and having a decent winter, the tourism traffic is back,” said Carl Hasty, head of the Tahoe Transportation District. “We’re everybody’s playground.”

California Highway Patrol officials in Truckee reported that traffic trying to exit Interstate 80 onto Highways 89 and 267, headed to Tahoe, briefly backed up onto the freeway lanes Saturday morning.

Tahoe transit officials said the congestion is caused in part because there are few routes into the lake basin, and most of them are one lane in each direction. Currently, Highway 89 on the lake’s west side is closed in the Emerald Bay area for work, leaving only one route available between the south and north shores.

California Highway Patrol officials report they have had to position a traffic control officer on Highway 50 near Echo Summit at times on afternoons to help guide vehicles out of the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort.

CHP and Caltrans have have been working, as well, in recent weeks to stop people from jamming Highway 50 by parking illegally alongside the road to play in the snow. Some are running across the highway with sleds in hand as if it were a neighborhood street, officials said.

Tahoe area planners say they are working on long-term solutions to the traffic problems. For the most part, those planners say they have dismissed the expensive idea of expanding roads from two to four lanes, saying they want to welcome more people to Tahoe, but do not want to encourage more car use.

“Our strategy is more a multimodal approach,” Hasty said. “What Tahoe really needs is transit that can get you across the lake and around the lake.”

Basin officials need to look at the Tahoe area overall as a destination resort, where you park your car, and use transit such as a snow train during your stay, he said.

Meantime, officials are talking about smaller fixes, such as working with local hotels to stagger checkout times so that there won’t be so many visitors arriving and leaving at once.

“When everybody decides to leave at one time, you have a jam down the Pioneer Trail” in south shore, Hasty said, “and people are sitting there for hours.”

Caltrans and basin officials also encourage drivers to check online traffic maps offered by Caltrans and Google to see where traffic is slow.

Caltrans officials meanwhile are warning they plan to close Highway 50 near Echo Summit at some point on Sunday to conduct avalanche control work. Crews will be setting explosives on ridges above the highway, which could cause avalanche flows to hit the road.

“Sometimes, it is 5 feet deep on the road and takes an hour to remove it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s 15 feet deep and takes eight hours.”

Avalanches have become a particular problem this winter, with heavy snows. Two people were trapped in their car on Highway 89 by an avalanche a few weeks ago. Both were rescued unhurt. A Squaw Valley ski patrol member was killed last week while doing avalanche control.

Even with clear roads and good visibility, Caltrans officials advise drivers to expect delays on weekends in Tahoe, and to keep extra driving distance between their car and the car ahead.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak