Traffic’s Imperfect Storm

Photographer captures ski area gridlock in drone flight


Writer’s Note: After writing the below My Shot, I attended a Placer County/Palisades Special Joint Meeting on Feb. 9, and I’ve spoken with several people who attended in person and via Zoom. Each said that either Palisades did not thoroughly explain traffic mitigation plans for the World Cup, or the ski area representatives offered to be open and transparent with the community but would not share vital information such as the number of passes sold or visitor numbers (the crux of the whole situation).

Each person I spoke with was very upset — even insulted — that the meeting lasted nearly three hours, while the public comment time was shortened from three minutes to just two — this was met with a collective grumble.

By Court Leve

On Jan. 28, I created a drone video highlighting what has now become routine weekend/holiday traffic. What I found was astonishing and far worse than what I expected to see. The video has received more than 85,000 views between social media and TV.


I arrived from Truckee at Palisades Tahoe at 6:45 a.m. that morning to beat congestion. The parking lot was filling up quickly and the village was bustling with employees who needed to arrive ahead of visitor traffic.

Once I was out of the valley and my drone was in the air, I saw a steady flow of cars slowly snaking toward the Palisades Tahoe ski areas. I later learned that traffic was solid from the parking lot with no breaks all the way to I-80, and there was roughly a half-mile of cars on both the east and west exit ramps. Traffic continued along the entirety of West River Street as well as through the McIver roundabout and to Tahoe Forest Hospital. I was told that traffic was backed up solid to Tahoe City and most of the way to Kings Beach as well. I later learned from several people the gridlock had been even worse the previous Saturday.

After posting the video, I was invited to participate in a Zoom meeting hosted by Nevada County. Included were members of law enforcement and various emergency services as well as staff members from Placer and Nevada counties and the Town of Truckee. I believe several points were agreed upon: This situation is no longer safe; something must change and change quickly; and the issue is complex.

So, what’s the fix? Ask 10 people and you will get 10 different solutions varying from the improbable to the expensive: build a gondola from Truckee and Tahoe City to the resorts; create a dedicated bus lane; develop a train system; eliminate all parking at the resorts; move to a reservation system on the weekends to charge a Tahoe/Truckee entrance fee; eliminate day tickets; raise season pass prices; get rid of the Ikon/Epic passes.

Blame can also be spread across a number of recent trends: a growth in short-term rentals; a plethora of cheap season passes; over-marketing of the area; and the lifestyle shift created by the pandemic. Choose your poison, but the cocktail created is the imperfect storm in which we are now living.

For sure, the downhill ski resorts are heavy economic players. I’ll state up front that I am not opposed to all future development. I think most people understand, if not agree with, future, moderate, and responsible development that is in line with our community and environment.

The 25-year development plan for Olympic Valley is touted as something that will decrease congestion, but I have my doubts. Once parking lots were full by about 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 28, I still found nearly 20 miles of bumper-to-bumper traffic. This equates to an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 cars sitting and idling for hours, causing complete gridlock. I’m not sure I understand how more development would decrease user visits and benefit the environment and quality of life for residents while providing a great experience to customers.   

But this cuts deeper than being denied a day on the slopes. The traffic is a nuisance: It has ballooned into a juggling act by locals trying to get to work, visit friends, run errands, etc. And it’s created an unsafe environment. I know of two instances where medical emergencies became major logistical challenges. One family needed to get a child to the Tahoe Forest Hospital emergency room. It took them nearly 1.5 hours driving from Tahoe Donner. Another, a trauma injury at the ski resort, resulted in nearly a 2.5-hour wait for an ambulance to arrive. Will routine injuries soon need to be transported via helicopter? What happens when the helicopter can’t fly due to inclement weather?

I understand the resorts are businesses and need continued economic growth. However, the investors and finance companies that now own Ikon and Epic are basing revenue projections upon infinite growth opportunity/product. But the “product” in this case, our mountains, is extremely finite and the max ROI has been hit — hence the need for more lodging and retail space. Epic and Ikon have painted themselves into a corner. Day pass prices are already exceedingly high compared to relatively low season pass rates. What’s the resorts’ next move? Selling day tickets that top $300 or even $400? Selling season passes that are two to three times their current prices? Limit the number of passes and tickets sold? The last option will not sit well with corporate investors.

It is time for the corporations that own the resorts to engage the community with realistic plans to find a middle ground that is sustainable and beneficial first to the community and second to their bottom line.

And despite virtually everyone agreeing the current situation isn’t working, neither the resorts nor the regional Destination Management Organizations responsible for marketing the area are slowing their efforts. If you haven’t taken a good look at the proposed 25-year development plan for Olympic Valley, it’s time to do so.

~ Truckee photographer Court Leve provided services to Palisades Tahoe on and off for roughly 20 years. He worked for Palisades Tahoe (previously Squaw Valley, USA) in the early 2000s in guest services and its corporate office answering phones and reading “Tell Alex” comments. Not opposed to all development in the area, he loves the mountain and this community and wants nothing more than success for both the resort and the residents who call this area home.


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