‘We’re aware there is a problem’: Placer County officials discuss ski traffic solutions

More chairs were set out for the many attendees that showed up.
Laney Griffo / Sierra Sun

KINGS BEACH, Calif. — Traveling on state routes 89 and 267 has become nearly impossible on weekends as traffic on the single lane roads to get to Palisades Tahoe and Northstar California become backed up for miles. 

The traffic has prevented people from getting to the mountains and has forced residents to feel stuck at home. Locals have taken to social media and reached out to local government agencies asking for the problem to be fixed.

Last Thursday, Feb. 9, the Olympic Valley Municipal Advisory Council and the North Lake Regional Advisory Council dedicated several hours of their joint meeting to hearing from local officials and giving community members the chance to ask questions and suggest solutions. 

The meeting, which was held at the North Tahoe Events Center in Kings Beach, was packed to the brim, with meeting organizers rushing to put out more chairs before the meeting began.

Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson, who represents the Lake Tahoe area, started the meeting by stating, “we are all well aware there is a problem.”

She went on to discuss how the population has changed in recent years. 

“The population of Placer County has shrunk 28% since 2000 … we have more second-homeowners, we have more visitors but we don’t have more full-time population,” Gustafson said. She added that Reno’s population has increased 42% and Sacramento’s population has increased 31%. Those are both drive-up zones for North Lake Tahoe. 

“So that puts about 1.2 million more people in the drive-up zone to the Sierra than when I was boots on the ground trying to get projects done,” Gustafson said. “Our demand is more than ever and it’s shifted our traffic patterns. We know traffic changes, patterns change and we have to be nimble but transportation systems aren’t as nimble as we’d like them to be.” 

Steve Teshara, who is a founding member of the Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association, gave a brief history of transportation in the region. Teshara has been working on traffic solutions for decades and helped found the organization in 1990 as a way to bring all the players to the table to help solve transportation issues. 

Officials from Placer County, Palisades and Northstar joined the conversation.
Laney Griffo / Sierra Sun

“When we speak together as a region, we’re pretty tough and it’s hard to ignore us,” Teshara said. “My plea to us tonight is, we’re all pretty frustrated but let’s turn the frustration into action.” 

The meat of the presentation was provided by Placer County Director of Public Works Ken Grehm. 

“When we talk about traffic management, there are some different perspectives that we have to keep in mind,” Grehm said. “It’s not just people trying to get to the ski hill, we also have neighborhoods that are sometimes directly impacted by cut-through traffic. We have to make sure at all times we’re keeping our emergency services providers in mind.” He added that they all have to keep normal regional traffic in mind. 

Grehm discussed several programs and policies that are already in place to address the traffic. The first is communication, which he said is mostly done by the ski resorts since they have a bigger reach. That includes when to expect busy times and when the parking lot is full. There are also changeable signs along Highways 89 and 267 to state when parking lots are full. 

“The more information the visitors have, hopefully the better decisions they can make,” Grehm said. “People can argue whether they are or not but they’ve at least got the best information available.”

Visitors from the Bay Area are traveling three hours to Tahoe, waiting in hours-long traffic just to find out the parking lot at the ski area is full. So trying to communicate with those people in advance to let them know it is going to be a busier weekend could prevent some from coming. 

There have also been some traffic control measures put in place, such as Olympic Valley Road turning into a three-lane road during peak demand and efforts by the ski resorts to spread ski traffic throughout the week. 

The county has also received extra funding for snow removal to make sure the roads are wide-enough for the extra lane. 

“We acknowledge that it isn’t what we want it to be, we’d like it to be better than what is it today,” Grehm said. 

So, while there are measures in place, they aren’t solving the issue, they make it slightly less bad. 

There are some long-term solutions that are in discussion, especially an extra lane on the highways that are direction reversibile that would be used by transit services. That would incentivize people to take public transit because it would allow them to skip the gridlock. 

The council members did discuss the shortage in bus drivers. Placer County will soon be discussing better pay and benefits for transit drivers. 

OVMAC member Mark Calhoun said he’d also like the county to look at a monorail option. 

There are also discussions of implementing paid parking or reserved parking options. 

One issue OVMAC member Vladimir Bazjanac raised was the fact that the Tahoe Region is nearly at capacity, a point that received applause from the crowd. 

Other concerns that were raised were the roundabouts on Highway 89 that are at the entrance and exits of I-80. Grehm said he’ll study the impacts of those roundabouts and possible solutions. 

A representative from CHP spoke about traffic calming solutions.
Laney Griffo / Sierra Sun

CHP has been working with Palisades and the Town of Truckee to direct traffic during the busy times. They’ve been experimenting with different timing and traffic patterns to find the best way to keep people moving. 

“It really comes down to us wanting to release traffic from I-80, utilize the main artery of 89 and keep that flowing as best we can,” a CHP representative said. 

It can’t be denied that the traffic issues are directly related to the ski resorts and many members of the crowd wanted to hear about what the resorts are doing to help solve the problem. 

Supervisor Cindy Gustafson helped facilitate the conversation.
Laney Griffo / Sierra Sun

Dee Byrne, President and COO of Palisades Tahoe, who was also present at the meeting, said it’s an issue she and her employees have to deal with too. 

“We’re in it with you, we want to be part of the solution,” Bryne said. 

Bryne said there have been four days this season that they’ve partnered with California Highway Patrol to set up turn around check points when parking is at capacity, although there have been other days outside of those four when the parking has been full but they haven’t set up the check points. 

Bryne also said they’ve seriously looked at requiring parking reservations but found it wasn’t feasible because Olympic Valley is a community and people may be using the parking area for reasons other than skiing. They are still looking at and discussing different parking strategies.

“We are very seriously talking about capacity management and our access strategy,” Bryne said, which was received with applause from the crowd. 

At Northstar, over the past six years, visitation overall has increased but distribution of visitors has shifted. 

“If you look at our peak days, they are actually down about 6% for the past six years … more importantly, what we’re seeing is a trend towards mid-week visitation. This is a trend we’re going to continue to drive by our product strategy,” said Northstar Vice President and General Manager Amy Ohran.

She continued to say that parking strategy is something that is discussed every year. While it wasn’t brought up during this meeting, it should be noted that in 2019, Vail Resorts, who owns Northstar, attempted to implement a paid parking strategy for the Village Lot. Passholders sued and the plan was overturned by the courts. 

While the two and a half hour meeting didn’t end with a silver bullet solution to solve the problem this weekend, it is clear that this is an issue that is important to the community. All the officials who were in attendance walked away from the meeting with promises to continue looking for solutions. 

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