Most days during her commute between Alpine Meadows and Truckee, Sara Gooding witnesses someone drifting across the center lane or shoulder of State Route 89. Each time she sees it happen, she is concerned because such lax driving has resulted in multiple fatalities over recent years:
In 2018, a 70-year-old cyclist named Paul Ingels was killed by a driver (neither drugs nor alcohol a factor).
In 2021, Dixie Lewis, the 19-year-old daughter of Moneyball author Michael Lewis and photographer/reporter Tabitha Soren, died alongside 20-year-old Ross Schultz when their car crossed into oncoming traffic.
This past August, a 37-year-old Olympic Valley resident was killed in a head-on collision by a truck that had drifted across the center lane.
“The safety of that road weighs … heavy on me,” said Gooding, who is a 20-year resident of the area, seven years of which have been in Alpine Meadows. “I know that people look at that road and think about the people trying to get to the resort, but it’s families and kids trying to get to school and people trying to get to work.”
As area ski resorts open and the communities brace for winter crowds, there’s heightened concern over safety on the 89 thoroughfare. Projects to address such worries are in the pipeline, but a long way off.
Gooding has been advocating to local agencies to execute safety precautions along the road since back in 2018, after the cyclist’s death. That November, Gooding submitted a request to Caltrans, which owns and operates SR 89, that “a rumble strip or some other device be installed to alert drivers who deviate from their lane.” Over the course of four years, after continued back-and-forth between Gooding and representatives from Caltrans and Placer County and numerous traffic safety mitigation ideas proposed, she learned (and Moonshine confirmed with Caltrans) that rumble strips will be installed along 8.5 miles of SR 89 in 2026 as part of a Caltrans capital project. Other traffic-mitigating measures along the corridor are planned, though funding has not yet been secured and thus a schedule is not set.
Caltrans initiated the installation of rumble strips along the center line between Truckee and Tahoe City back in 2018. A year later, the project was canceled due to a proposal by Placer County to use SR 89’s shoulders as a bus lane during big ski weekends; the main lanes of the road would therefore shift. This idea was eventually abandoned after lack of support by Caltrans and California Highway Patrol due to safety concerns.
At that point in time, Caltrans’ safety team said the collision history on the road didn’t warrant rumble strips. Since then, Caltrans issued a policy memo requiring the incorporation of rumble strips into all projects, negating the collision threshold. According to CHP, since November 2017 there have been 149 traffic collisions and five fatalities on 89 between Truckee town limits and Tahoe City.
Draft environmental documents for the agency’s rumble-strip project on SR 89 will be circulated for public review in April 2024, with a target date of a final document by that July. Daniel Cuellar, the Caltrans project manager for the improvements, said that to accelerate this project other projects would have to be delayed.
Placer County also has 89 in its sights for upgrades, as it works its way through multiple traffic mitigation projects in its Resort Triangle Transportation Plan, a guiding framework for state routes 89, 267, and 28, particularly during peak seasons of summer and winter. Ideas include a reversible bus-only lane and transit signal priority. Implementation of the plan, which was approved in October 2020, is happening in phases.
“The county is currently taking the next step to further define the preliminary design, update cost estimates, further quantify the benefits, gather additional public and partner input, and perform initial environmental investigations,” shared Ryan Decker, engineering manager with Placer, via email. “The scope of this work is in progress and a request for proposals is planned to be advertised by the end of [December]. With the information from this report, the county can improve our ability to acquire funding through competitive grant programs and move forward with the entirety of the plans.”
Because SR 89 isn’t operated or maintained by the county, staff did not have an official comment to provide regarding traffic safety.
Current alternatives to driving a personal vehicle along 89 includes TART Connect and bus services, and the Mountaineer shuttle for Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows. At Palisades Tahoe, the new Base-to-Base Gondola will provide a 16-minute ride between the two ski areas for those who want to avoid driving between Alpine and Palisades.
Gooding recognizes the improvements that have been implemented over the years— she’s a regular user of the Mountaineer service during ski season. However, the long timeline for further improvements is concerning, particularly considering her four-year-long plea.
“Not that the rumble strips would prevent it,” Gooding said. “I just feel like it says, ‘There’s inherent dangers in traveling on a two-lane road; let’s make it as safe as possible.’”