Multiple mile-long gridlocks every weekend along highways 89 and 267: For some, it’s their grand and glorious ski trip that gets put on hold for hours or postponed all together, while others can’t make it to the grocery store, work, or the doctor because the road is snarled with would-be skiers. It’s a real possibility, too, that these traffic kerfuffles could be risking lives.
For Carnelian Bay resident Judy Scoville, the traffic jams on Sunday, Feb. 5, meant that it took her two hours to drive to the urgent care in Truckee as her 5-year-old twins screamed in the back seat. And another two hours to return home with medication. While this tested Scoville’s sanity, thankfully it wasn’t a life-threatening illness the children were suffering from, she said.
On that same day, the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue team was called out on a search for a lost skier at Sugar Bowl. In the report the team members posted online, they described how the traffic congestion impacted their effort to assemble volunteer searchers quickly: “These folks battled traffic for over two hours, in personal vehicles and the official team vehicles to get to Sugar Bowl,” the forum report stated.
Downhill resort disasters
While the biggest downhill ski areas, Palisades Tahoe and Northstar California, are both in Placer County, some of the worst traffic issues have been in Truckee in neighboring Nevada County.
Truckee resident Emily Williams has a child who goes to Creekside Charter School in Olympic Valley. “We can’t get to school; we can’t get to work,” she said. “Every time the traffic backs up into the town of Truckee the resorts should be fined! I’ve been here a long time, and this is the worst I’ve ever seen. We can’t go see friends in Tahoe City on the weekend. Our friends in Olympic Valley can’t leave their house on the weekend.”
“The question is: How do we build a really efficient transit system that is easier to use than your car?”
~ Tony Karwowski, North Tahoe Community Alliance CEO
Truckee Town Council member Anna Klovstad agreed with the severity of the problem in a recent conversation with Moonshine Ink. “We have been receiving frustrated comments from constituents via email, text, phone calls, and as comments at town council meetings,” she said. “Some of the examples that we have heard are things like having to pay hundreds of dollars extra this year for babysitting because the parents are sitting in traffic. People not able to get to work on time; nurses working 16-hour shifts while waiting for their relief staff; and similar issues.”
Aside from the frustrating daily headaches, Klovstad added that safety is of big concern. “What if there’s a gas leak or a sewage spill?” she asked. “If somebody here has a heart attack, or something that requires an ambulance on a Sunday afternoon, God help them!”
Perhaps the biggest frustration for Truckee residents and policy makers is that they have no control over the issue, according to Klovstad. “Truckee is paying their police force to direct traffic, sometimes outside of our area, in order to try to mitigate those town road impacts,” she said. “That is particularly a difficult one for me to accept since the town receives absolutely zero tax revenue from the ski resort activities.”
The traffic jams are caused by too many people trying to get to Palisades Tahoe and Northstar California resorts at the same time on two-lane roads. In the Jan. 24 posting on his blog, Unofficial Alpine, Mark Fisher wrote this summary: “A lot of factors have resulted in an increased demand for skiing and riding in Northern California: multi-mountain passes, better equipment, social media, short-term rentals and remote work opportunities to name just a few.”
The good news is that governmental agencies and private companies are aware of the problem and working on solutions. The bad news is that many locals speaking up at meetings and on social media think the major cause of the problem is not being addressed, Fisher said. “Alterra Mountain Company has a problem,” he wrote. “Pass sales have outstripped the carrying capacity of the North Tahoe area. Something needs to change.”
Meetings and more …?
On Feb. 9, a joint meeting addressing the winter traffic issue was held at the North Tahoe Event Center in Kings Beach, attended by the Olympic Valley Municipal Advisory Committee, North Tahoe Regional Advisory Council, several Placer County officials including District 5 Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson, ski resort executives, and a packed house of public members. According to Placer County, more than 300 people attended either in person or virtually.
County staff members discussed actions that have already been implemented including changeable signs at key spots in Truckee and Tahoe City, which alert drivers of the parking situation at the resorts. The ski areas also have apps that provide up-to-date parking information. While the signs can be effective, Palisades Tahoe President and Chief Operating Officer Dee Byrne says that they lose their effectiveness if drivers don’t attend to what they convey. Recently, a large Palisades sign at Deerfield Street read, “We promise, we are full. Turn around.” And yet many folks just kept slowly moving south toward the mountain.
California Highway Patrol Lt. Erik Egide said at the meeting the patrol also helps to control ski resort traffic during peak times, with a primary goal of improving safety. The CHP is especially concerned about traffic backing up from Highway 89 onto Interstate 80. This can be extremely dangerous as vehicles traveling at freeway speed are generally not prepared to encounter stopped traffic in the right-hand lane in a rural area, he said.
Placer County has leaned on public transportation to solve potential traffic problems, according to Supervisor Gustafson. In recent years, the county has invested over $6 million annually in the Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transportation services, both in buses and TART Connect, the curb-to-curb, on-demand service. Both are now free to passengers.
“We are encouraging people to take the TART bus to Northstar, Palisades, and Homewood,” said Sara Van Siclen, executive director of the Truckee North Tahoe Transportation Management Association.
Placer County Public Works director Ken Grehm said that eventually, given the road constraints, we need to get more people into buses, “but if they end up in traffic with everyone else it somewhat defeats the purpose.” Another challenge of increasing transit ridership has been a shortage of bus drivers, which is keeping some buses off the road.
Rebecca Taber from Placer County Public Works stated that they need about 33 drivers to run all the TART routes every 30 minutes. “We now have around 14 drivers,” she said. This means the buses are running once an hour instead of every half hour, making the service less convenient. While there is a nationwide shortage of Class A drivers, that it is exacerbated by the long-term housing crisis in the Tahoe region.
Placer County, the TMA, and Caltrans have been zeroing in on one possible long-term solution to the traffic problem: A transit priority lane. A single lane in the middle of the road to be used only by transit buses that would go toward the ski areas in the morning, and away in the afternoon. This would allow buses to reach the resorts faster than cars, which would then, they hope, lead to people leaving their cars behind and utilizing public transit. Agency representatives also believe that this extra lane could be effective in the summer in case of a fire evacuation.
“A reversible bus lane would provide relief,” Van Siclen said. An update on the process of creating such a lane will be discussed at the April 6 TNT/TMA meeting, she said. (For details, go to tnttma.com.) Placer County has requested proposals for a corridor management study for highways 89 and 267 that they hope will be completed this year. The study would examine the feasibility of a transit lane. Construction, which would require road improvements, is years down the road.
“Transit is the biggest win and biggest opportunity,” according to Tony Karwowski, CEO of the North Tahoe Community Alliance. “We have come a long ways in the last few years. But we are challenged by the lack of drivers. TART Connect is working really well and is fully staffed. The question is: How do we build a really efficient transit system that is easier to use than your car? That is where we need to go.”
Karwowski said another key to handling the traffic problems in both winter and summer is “messaging about when to travel. If you want to have a great experience it’s better to do it on Friday morning, stay over Sunday and leave Monday morning,” he said.
This is part of a shift that Tahoe area marketing agencies are working on: encouraging people to come to the lake during off-peak times. “We have to listen to the community and understand the problems,” Karwowski added. “And provide better communication with what we are working on.”
The public responds
After three hours of discussion at the Feb. 9 meeting the public was given the opportunity to speak. One suggestion by local Alissa Morganti was that the ski areas should provide free bus service to all the kids’ ski teams with pickups in Tahoe City and Truckee. This would cut down on the number of trips by parents driving to the ski areas to drop the kids off, and then another round trip at the end of the day.
“The elephant in the room is capacity,” said local resident Sarah Lowis. “There are too many total ticket sales. It’s not about product strategy; we need to have more focus on capacity.”
Byrne from Palisades Tahoe affirmed at the meeting, “We are living this too. Employees are going through the same thing trying to get to work. We want to be part of the solution.”
Moonshine Ink sent her the following question: “Has Palisades Tahoe considered some sort of system that rewards skiers for skiing mid-week and discourages them from skiing weekends? Such as substantial price differences between mid-week only passes and weekend passes?”
Byrne replied via email: “Yes, we have looked into these issues, in fact, we discuss them all the time. We are an operating company. We make our money by selling lift access, food and beverage, ski school, retail merchandise, etc. We are not prepared to discuss any specific lift access changes for next year at this time, but can share that our goal is and has been to fill mid-week and non-peak days. Additionally, I can share that we are very seriously considering initiating a more structured approach to our parking including by reservation only, paid parking, carpool and a combination thereof. We would love to build additional parking at the entrance to Olympic Valley, but that isn’t possible until our development plan is approved by the county.”
Placer County Supervisor Gustafson was contacted with a similar question: “Given the major impact of ski traffic on the Truckee/North Tahoe communities, has Placer County considered imposing a limit on the number or format of ski area season passes?”
Gustafson responded: “This is such a complicated issue and I have been asking this same question. The easy answer is that according to our county counsel: ‘Absent an application for a new discretionary entitlement or an amendment to an existing permit for a ski resort, the county has no jurisdiction to dictate to a private company how it dispenses or manages its season pass sales.’ That said, myself, county staff, as well as our regional agency partners, are working with all parties to find solutions to address the growing demand for both winter and summer recreation in the region. The ski areas themselves are working on options to address the impacts in the community. As I learned through our discussions with them, many adjustments and efforts were taken during this winter. Solutions such as reservations systems and other restrictions on access require significant advance planning and investment. The county is working on both short-term and longer-term solutions that will require ski area and community support. And please be assured — I completely understand the frustrations being felt — I live within it and commute through the area almost daily.”
In an email interview, Fisher from Unofficial Alpine voiced an opinion that is likely shared by many people stuck in ski traffic: “I believe that all marketing designed to bring more visitors on weekends should be stopped. I don’t mind them trying to fill beds in the village. We just don’t need to have anything more said about how much snow has fallen, how great the B2B [Base to Base Gondola] is … the free concerts that are happening. It’s plainly obvious that more Ikon passes have been sold within the NorCal region than Palisades Tahoe can handle.”
The answer is in the messaging — or is it?