By Carolyn Highland
The commute to my job at Tahoe Expedition Academy in Martis Valley is 8.9 miles. Most days, it takes 16 minutes: I go down Glenshire Drive, swing through the roundabouts to 267, and hook a right at the Truckee airport light. Easy.
Living in the mountains, we are no strangers to weather and road closures impacting our ability to get to school — it is part of the life we signed up for when we decided to live here. All schools in the area have to be nimble and creative when it comes to making sure learning happens around all the potential obstacles.
But this year, what has affected teachers’ and students’ abilities to get to school on time (or at all) has been not just weather, but also weekday ski traffic clogging roads all over town. It all began the week of Dec. 19 when Tahoe Expedition Academy was still in session and other schools in the area were on break. Many of us got caught trying to get to school and chalked it up to vacation madness that would be short-lived.
However, the traffic continued, particularly on Fridays, throughout January and February, even around non-holiday weekends and with no new snow. On Friday, Feb. 10, I left just before 8 a.m., building in extra time to make it for my first period class at 8:30. After sitting in traffic for an hour, I arrived halfway through class — another teacher had to cover for me. My eighth-grade English class was sparsely attended, with students arriving all the way up to when class ended at 9:30. They, too, had been stuck in traffic.
When Friday, March 3 rolled around, I left home at 7 a.m., hoping I would beat the rush after receiving 12 feet of snow and having I-80 closed for days. Even that early, traffic was starting to back up to the Old Brockway/267 interchange. That morning was filled with frantic Slack messages from teachers running late, and attendance updates from students who were stuck or who had given up and turned around after crawling toward campus for over an hour.
Parents driving kids in from Olympic Valley got stuck on both ends — hitting Northstar traffic on the way in and Palisades traffic on the way home. A parent I spoke to described a Tuesday when it had taken him upwards of three hours to drop his kids off at school and get home only to have to come back for pickup and do it all over again.
While TEA’s proximity to Northstar makes it particularly susceptible to delays, other schools in the area aren’t immune. An employee at Kings Beach Elementary I spoke with said students and teachers coming in from Truckee are late “all the time” to school because of ski traffic on 267. Creekside Elementary, located in the heart of Olympic Valley, is directly in the line of fire when it comes to Palisades traffic. A teacher at Creekside called their daily commute “frustrating and unsustainable,” often having to leave Truckee by 6:30 a.m. to get to school on time — a drive that should take 15 minutes often taking upwards of 1.5 hours. And while schools like Truckee Elementary, Truckee High School, ACMS, and SELS may not currently find themselves caught in the crossfire, if the traffic gets much worse, they may not be able to escape. Johannes Griesshammer, footwear buyer at Tahoe Mountain Sports, reported that on Friday, March 4 around 8 a.m., traffic heading toward resorts was backed up into town almost to Gateway on Donner Pass Road.
I am currently in my fifth year as a teacher in Truckee and have never had issues getting to campus because of traffic until this winter. According to Vail Resorts (as reported by snowbrains.com), pass product sales as of Dec. 5, 2022 for the 2022/23 season were up 86% from what they were on Dec. 9, 2019 for the 2019/20 season. It’s difficult to ignore the impact this has had on traffic to resorts in the area. Additionally, with so many more people able to work remotely than before the pandemic, ski traffic is not just confined to weekends anymore: Weekdays are increasingly fair game for those who can bang out some emails in the lodge between runs or take conference calls from the chairlift.
We all know that the Tahoe area is a world-class destination. An influx of visitors that swells the population during certain times of year is a fact of life here. However, besides being a vacation spot, the Tahoe area is also just a collection of towns and cities with people trying to live their lives independently of the ski resorts. With employees trying to get to work. With children trying to get to school. With patients trying to get to appointments. Do we not deserve to be able to do this?
Skiing is fun. I get it. I live here so I can ski tour before or after school. But when traffic gets so severe that the basic structure of life for locals is disrupted — is it not time that something be done? Do we really feel comfortable as a community allowing resort skiing and corporate profit to be prioritized over children learning?
This is a complex issue with many stakeholders and responsible parties that cannot be solved overnight — yet it also cannot continue like this. As a teacher, my job is to teach students how to analyze literature and tell a great story. As a writer, my job is to use my voice to advocate for what I believe in. My job is not to figure out how to manage the infrastructure of our town or to hold ski corporations accountable for their impact on mountain towns, so I will not presume to know how to best address this issue. I implore the local electorate, elected officials, and resort executives to see this as a crucial moment to act on behalf of the sustainability of our community — and the wellbeing of our young people.
~ Carolyn Highland is a teacher and writer living in Truckee. Her work has appeared in Backcountry Magazine and the Ski Journal. Highland’s book Out Here: Wisdom from the Wilderness is available at Word After Word. In her free time, you’ll find her backcountry skiing, trail running, mountain biking, and backpacking.