Visitors to Lake Tahoe this winter found themselves caught in a series of major traffic jams in and out of the basin during a historic snow year. That may be nothing, though, compared to what drivers could face this summer.
The next few months may be the most crowded in a decade on Tahoe’s roads, thanks to a solid economy and forecasts of a hot Central Valley summer that may drive people east in search of cooler temperatures.
“Tourism traffic is back, " said Carl Hasty, head of the Tahoe Transportation District. “We’re everybody's playground.”
Faced with urban-style traffic woes at popular spots like Sand Harbor, Tahoe City, South Shore’s casino row and Emerald Bay, Tahoe planners like Hasty have ramped up efforts to make fundamental changes in the way people get around in the basin.
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The goal, they say, is to chip away at the basin’s car culture by encouraging and even forcing visitors to park their cars and take a bus, hike, bike or ride a water taxi.
The Tahoe Area Regional Planning Agency last month unveiled a 20-year vision, called “Linking Tahoe,” focused on reforming lakeside communities into walkable villages, boosting bus and shuttle service, creating a continuous bike trail around the lake, and if there is enough money, adding a water taxi to run between the north and south shores.
Those are carrots. Here’s the stick: Planners say they they also aren’t opposed to making it harder to be a driver in some parts of the lake.
At the moment, parking is free around the basin, other than in state parks. That may change. A group of agencies, including state highway and local transit departments, plan to begin charging soon at a few parking areas on the lake’s northeast shore near Sand Harbor. Along with a recently imposed roadside parking ban, the fees are expected to push visitors to bike and take shuttle buses instead of driving to beaches in the Sand Harbor area.
Planners are calling the Sand Harbor project a test that could be expanded to other parts of the lake. The point, they say, is that reducing congestion is not about making it easier to drive.
“We are not going to widen highways,” Hasty said. “It is too costly financially. It is too costly environmentally. That only buys you so much time, and then what?
“Reducing vehicle trips, that is the future for us.”
That goal is not absolute. Two of the biggest traffic-relief projects in the basin right now involve new road building. Hasty and other basin planners are billing those projects as community revitalization that actually could reduce driving overall.
One is a proposed rerouting of Highway 50 for about a mile up the hill behind the Harrah’s and Mont Bleu casinos, taking pass-through traffic off of the crowded casino corridor in Stateline, Nevada.
South shore officials say the a new loop road will allow them to rebrand the now-tired and sterile-looking casino row. They want to turn it into a pedestrian-friendly village by narrowing the main drag into a two-lane street, lined by landscaping, bike lanes and wider sidewalks.
“It becomes a district that has some intrigue,” Carol Chaplin of the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority said. “A real village feel.”
Mike Bradford, operator of the Lakeside Inn and Casino, said that might encourage casino companies, which have lost business to online gaming and Indian casinos, to invest in new attractions.
“People are coming to Tahoe more and more to do something other than gaming,” Bradford said. “This is one of the ways we transform ourselves from a gaming destination to an outdoor tourism destination.”
The Highway 50 south shore bypass project also includes a pedestrian overpass that will lead from the casinos to a bike trail and to Van Sickle Bi-State Park, which has hiking trails with panoramic lake views just a few hundred feet up the slope from the casinos, but is little known to visitors.
The casino bypass project also includes proposals for new housing stock to replace aging buildings that will be torn down to make room for the road. Construction is still several years away.
Similarly, in Tahoe City, work begins this spring rerouting a few hundred yards of Highway 89, allowing drivers to avoid both the busy Fanny Bridge area and a traffic signal just beyond Fanny Bridge that is causing long lines of cars to back up along the west shore. Those car queues have become a concern for fire and law enforcement officials responding to emergency calls.
Iconic Fanny Bridge, where millions of visitors stop to watch the Truckee River spring from the lake, will be torn down and replaced with a similar-looking bridge, to be shared by local drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists and river gawkers. Local leaders say that in turn might encourage more pedestrian-oriented business development at that west end of town.
In other lakeside towns, new projects are aimed at putting the squeeze on drivers.
In Kings Beach, Placer County traffic engineers recently reduced the highway to one lane in each direction (from two in each direction) to slow traffic through town, and added two traffic circles to make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street. The changes have caused more traffic back-ups, which in turn has pushed some impatient drivers to cut through side streets.
But it sends a notable message, Placer County engineer Peter Kraatz says: Main streets in town centers belong as much to pedestrians as they do to drivers, even if that main street is technically a state highway.
A more ambitious carrot-and-stick effort to reduce driving is underway on State Route 28 at the northeast corner of the lake, between Incline Village and Sand Harbor state beach. Nevada officials recently banned parking alongside the highway there, and soon will impose parking fees – possibly $10 – at nearby trail head parking areas.
To give visitors acceptable alternatives, the Tahoe Area Regional Transit, known as TART, has begun offering $3 shuttle buses from a free parking lot in Incline Village. And highway officials are building a four-mile bike and pedestrian trail with panoramic lake views from Incline Village to Sand Harbor.
Sand Harbor has a paid parking lot as well, though it fills up quickly on busy summer days.
If that “multi-modal” project succeeds, Tahoe transportation consultant Derek Kirkland said similar projects could be considered on the roads from south shore to Emerald Bay and Zephyr Cove, two popular areas that become clogged with cars on summer weekends.
Planners around the basin say they are committed in particular to make cycling easier, safer and more popular, not only for tourists but for basin residents headed to work or the store. Already a few bike trails are snowplowed in winter to allow hardy residents with fat-tired bikes to get around.
The California Tahoe Conservancy is taking the lead in the south shore, constructing what it calls The Greenway, a four-mile bike and pedestrian path linking the lake, the casinos, other business areas, and residential areas, serving as an alternative corridor to busy Highway 50.
The ultimate goal is to construct a continuous bike trail around the lake, said Chris Mertens of the conservancy group. That likely will take decades and will require some tricky engineering on the steep flanks to Emerald Bay.
The effort to reduce driving in the basin has a notable secondary purpose, said Darcie Goodman Collins, head of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the group that coined the “Keep Tahoe Blue” rallying cry more than a half century ago. Traffic, road work and road runoff reduce lake water clarity.
The ideas in the plan are not new. As early as the 1970s, Tahoe planners talked about a day when visitors might leave their cars parked at the entrance points to the basin.
The problem once was political will. The major impediment now is money. TRPA officials estimate Tahoe will have access to $2 billion in federal, state and local transportation funds for improvements over the next quarter century. But that is considerably less than the $6 billion estimated needed to realize the vision of a basin where people can get where they want without cars.
Collins of the League to Save Lake Tahoe advises basin planners and transit officials not too bite off too much to start. It’s good to push for frequent bus service around the lake, but better to focus on improving bus frequencies first in populated areas like south shore.
“Take a small hub, do it in small chunks, small distances, then expand,” she said.
As for this summer, Tahoe transit official Russ Nygaard said be forewarned, especially on weekends. “It’s going to be a big traffic year.”