Back-Seat Driver

Could this idea fix north Tahoe’s brutal winter traffic congestion?

Congestion in downtown Truckee during a heavy snow year last January.
Congestion in downtown Truckee during a heavy snow year last January.

The snow is falling, and the ski season is about to hit high gear heading toward the big Presidents Day weekend. Will Tahoe roads be ready to handle the traffic?

Probably not. The surge of traffic on Friday nights and Saturday mornings is intense, notably on Highway 89, the only route to Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski areas. Highway 89 was a parking lot at times last year, as were some Truckee streets.

The California Highway Patrol will station officers at key highway intersections, in some cases to guide traffic, in other cases just to send the message to drivers not to try anything crazy.

The Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transit is working on a plan to add extra buses and run them out of a school parking lot in Truckee, offering skiers an alternate way to Squaw or Alpine.

But buses get stuck in traffic, too. Unless ... what if buses could run in their own express lane, zipping past lines of stop-and-go cars?

Squaw and Alpine officials have been in talks with Caltrans, the CHP and Placer County about creating a third traffic lane on Highway 89 between I-80 in Truckee and the Squaw turnoff.

The idea is to turn a shoulder on the two-lane highway into a bus and carpool lane, creating a real incentive for people to ditch their cars and take transit.

That will help Squaw, where last year the ski resort’s 5,000 parking spots filled on busy days, causing some people to turn around and go elsewhere, and prompting others to park illegally on Squaw Valley Road and hike up the road with boots and skis.

Squaw already has begun offering 100 prime parking spots on a first-come basis to cars with four or more people in them. They also have been working with residents in Olympic Valley on ways to fund a permanent “micro-transit” bus that could circle around the valley’s housing areas, shuttling people to and from the lift area.

Squaw and Placer County also on occasion are turning the two-lane access road into the ski area into a three-laner to get traffic in and out more efficiently on heavy days.

“We’re trying to chip away any way we can,” Squaw spokeswoman Liesl Hepburn said. “We’re pushing hard and we are ready to help with funding however we can.”

That prompted the idea of adding a temporary third lane for about 8 miles along Highway 89.

Squaw officials wanted to try it as soon as possible. But there are some issues. A preliminary analysis found that the highway shoulder is not wide enough the entire way from Truckee to allow continuous usage, according to Caltrans official Jim Graham.

Another problem is that when heavy storms hit, Caltrans maintenance crews sometimes struggle to keep Interstate 80 open, and sometimes don’t have enough people and plows to keep Highway 89’s shoulders open.

Placer County is interested in the idea, but it may take money to widen the shoulder, said county transportation engineer Peter Kraatz. “We’re in continuing discussions, but we are still not prime time to get something deployed.”

Meantime, there is talk of trying out a third lane in brief segments along the way, where the shoulder is wider. That would allow buses to pull out and pass some cars before merging back in. That might include a special right-turn lane at the turnoff to Squaw.

Widening roads in Tahoe is not generally seen as a good thing. But officials with the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency say they support the three-lane concept if it really will get more people out of cars and on buses.

Tom Mooers of the Sierra Watch environmentalist group, however, is opposed. Sierra Watch recently sued Placer County over its approval of a large expansion at Squaw, including a massive indoor water park. His group plans to publish a report this week saying those expansion plans will bring more traffic and environmental degradation to the Tahoe area, including pollution that will further reduce the lake’s famous water clarity.

“The idea of paving our way out of traffic problems isn’t going to work,” Mooers said.

Meantime, businesses are putting out the word to visitors: Consider coming on a bus and staying overnight. If you come in a car, pick arrival and departure hours away from the ski crowds.

Eventually, TRPA officials say they hope to find money to employ more micro-transit buses, plow bike lanes for winter use, start some cross-lake ferries, and possibly boost local bus service enough to close some roads to cars.