Tahoe Mobility Forum seeks to find solutions to high traffic volume
Special to the Sierra Sun
Regional leaders convened recently to discuss solutions to a kind of congestion mostly unrelated to COVID-19 — traffic.
Even between Tahoe’s two most highly trafficked seasons, parking below Mayhem Cove overflowed and drivers dodged pedestrians on Emerald Bay Road in mid-October. Peak season, locals’ trips to the grocery store become trials as they merged with Bay-area tourists finishing seven hour-long commutes in the snow.
When Amy Berry, Tahoe Fund’s CEO, first arrived to the basin in 1996, she took the bus.
“I was in college and too young to rent a car, and we happened to be staying near the stops,” Berry said.
As an east coast native, Berry said using public transit was familiar. The biggest challenge she and her friends faced getting from Truckee to Squaw was finding exact change for their transit.
“It’s never dawned on me we’ve built an environment that’s really car dependent,” Berry said. “We need a solution to change people’s behaviors — a lot of people.”
Berry said the Tahoe Fund is a nonprofit that helps allocate funds dedicated to preserving the basin’s natural beauty, hence its involvement in the Tahoe Mobility Forum in September.
The forum was sponsored by the Tahoe Regional Arts Foundation to explore short- and long-term ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled during peak visitation periods.
Berry identified the pandemonium that is Tahoe traffic as a “wicked problem.” By that she means that the solution is far from linear, and everything needs to be fixed at once.
“The number one thing to understand is that Tahoe is an incredibly complex place to get things done,” Berry said, referring to the five counties, two states and the federal government that govern the basin. “You expand out, and you get Truckee, Nevada County as well. It’s a lot of people to coordinate — it’s a lot of entities, bureaucracies and policies to coordinate.”
According to the Tahoe Mobility Forum’s report, those entities oversee the wellbeing of the basin’s 55,000 permanent residents and its 25 million annual visitors.
The report called the consequences of congestion “severe,” and detailed its economic and environmental impact.
“The delays can discourage visitors to local businesses and decrease quality of life for residents and visitors alike,” the report read. “It also jeopardizes public safety by increasing the risk of automobile collisions, especially with people on bicycles or on foot.”
Berry said the traffic not only affects carbon emissions and air quality in the region, but also pollutes the lake everyone is there to appreciate.
“If you come up to Tahoe and you’re stuck in traffic the whole time, you’re probably not being respectful of the environment,” Berry said. “The biggest issue is the source of fine sediment from surrounding roads blowing into Lake Tahoe causing loss of lake clarity.”
Berry said offering viable alternative transit options begins with offering easy and accessible parking.
“People hate paying for parking in Tahoe,” Berry explained. “Usually, they’ll park anywhere.”
Berry said the region’s leaders are losing out on a financial opportunity that engages Tahoe’s day visitors — the audience hardest to reach and generate revenue from.
“We’re seeing a huge influx of people coming up for the day that don’t contribute much to the economy,” Berry said. “That base is very hard to communicate to.”
Berry said an interaction while paying for a night at a hotel or a lift ticket provides conduits for helpful messaging, be they Leave No Trace or COVID-19 safety protocols and recommendations.
“Generally, a transaction means that you’re having a conversation with them,” Berry said.
Berry said the problem has devolved into vehicles parking anywhere along the side of the road, and the California and Nevada Highway patrols physically cannot keep up with necessary ticketing.
“You’d be appalled if you saw the East Shore this summer,” Berry said. “There were more tickets given out than ever before.”
Berry said sometimes the highway patrol can call upon park rangers to help, but the Forest Service is “not permitted” to writing tickets on federal property.
Berry said leaders are considering putting together a regional parking enforcement program along the way.
“I think what we really have is a parking problem,” Berry explained, “then we could move tourists around in public transportation.”
Berry said once remote parking areas are identified, the team assembled at the forum could devise a plan to bus people in.
“It’s very likely that that location comes with a parking spot, then we could shuttle people around,” Berry said.
Berry said the forum attendees also considered incentivizing Union Pacific to give consumers rail priority on Sundays, as opposed to product transit. Even that option for a tourist from Sacramento, Berry said, begs the question: “What do you do when you get here?”
The broad range of stakeholders is exactly why an appropriate solution will be so full-bodied, said Christine Maley-Grubl, who joined the Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association as executive director in June.
According to Maley-Grubl, the Truckee North Tahoe TMA is a public-private partnership concerned with identifying transportation solutions and promoting those options.
Maley-Grubl said a big portion of her work is advertising existing transit options in the area.
“There’s the TART service, which is a regional bus service on the North Shore, which is currently free,” Maley-Grubl said, referring to Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transit. “You can jump on the bus anywhere on the route at no cost.”
Maley-Grubl said one of TMA’s main focuses is marketing and promotion of different types of transit they emerge. That is why she is looking forward to the Resort Triangle Transportation plan, which connects Kings Beach, Tahoe City and Truckee.
Tahoe Fund’s CEO Berry said the forum’s attendees are trying to leverage existing corridor management plans to create long-term solutions.
The Tahoe Transportation District (TTD) and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) are two key players in the actionable items presented in the forum’s report, Berry said.
The Highway 28 corridor is from Crystal Bay to Spooner Summit, and separate plans are being developed for the Highway 89 and Highway 267 corridors, respectively.
Berry said she was not sure how plausible an entry fee would be given that a significant portion of Tahoe’s workforce lives outside of the basin.
“It may be needed,” Berry said, “but it’s not without controversy.”
Berry said the state of Nevada requires a constitutional amendment in order to introduce a toll.
September’s forum will be followed by another in February, where the group will determine actionable items and prioritize app development, said Tahoe Regional Arts Foundation Chairman Keith Vogt.
Vogt said an app and a website would help tourists see traffic in the area in real time, but all parties — event hosts, planners, Tahoe locals, travelers and the environment — stand to benefit.
“Say you’re from Emeryville and you want to come to an event at the theater, and it’s just you coming in your car,” Vogt explained, “Our ticket is going to encourage you to come with another person. If we have other people from Fairfield, Davis and Sacramento, we’ll have the power to link those people up with each other.”
Vogt said the Stages at Northstar and the foundation have already determined that hosting events during high traffic times is not feasible, and are taking “aggressive” steps to encourage carpooling.
“Our goal is to provide parking for people who show up with three of more people in their cars,” Vogt added, “(The Resort Triangle) and hopefully Squaw and Incline Village will be mobility hubs we send shuttles to.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story has been updated.
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