City, public oppose speed limit increase
Ryan Summerlin February 21, 2012
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – Numerous businesses and organizations, including the South Lake Tahoe City Council, have stepped up opposition to a Caltrans plan to raise the speed limit on sections of U.S. Highway 50 through Meyers and South Lake Tahoe.
Caltrans presented its findings from speed surveys done throughout town at the Tuesday city council meeting. The speed study, done in 2009, calls for increases of 5 mph on at least five sections of the highway at the South Shore.
According to California law, speed limits for any given area are based on a number of factors, including a speed survey no more than 5 to 10 years old, safety concerns and the number of accidents in the area. The speed survey measures the average speed of drivers in “free-flowing” traffic through the section of road.
Currently, speed limits on Highway 50 through South Lake Tahoe and Meyers are out of date. Because of this, law enforcement must revert to maximum speed limits on state highways, 55 mph on a two-lane highway and 65 mph on a four-lane highway, though officers can pull drivers over for driving faster than is safe for certain conditions.
“They can legally go those speeds,” California Highway Patrol spokesman Jeff Gartner said. “But we’re encouraging people to obey the posted speed limits. It’s for the safety of them and the community.”
CHP officers stopped issuing speeding tickets on the stretch of highway in December, Gartner said.
When asked why Caltrans hadn’t began the process to update the speed limits until three years after the most recent speed survey had been done, spokeswoman Deanna Shoopman couldn’t explain.
“I can’t answer why they haven’t implemented them earlier,” Shoopman said. “Now, it’s down to where it has to be done.”
Several business and community members objected to the proposed 5 mph speed limit increase during public comment Tuesday.
“We are strongly opposed to speed limit increases,” said JoAnn Conner, president of the South Tahoe Chamber of Commerce, adding that businesses along the Meyers corridor are concerned about safety.
More than 13 million cars have passed through the Highway 50 section through Meyers in three years. In that time, there have been four crashes, according to Darryl Chambers, Caltrans District 3 safety officer.
Steve Teshara of Sustainable Community Advocates argued with Caltrans’ logic surrounding the changes.
“The only way we can slow down the speeds in our community is if there’s so many crashes we can’t increase them anymore,” Teshara told the council. “If people are traveling through the zone safely, why do we need to increase the speed?”
Other speakers expressed concerns about the environmental impact and the contradiction to the city’s plan to increase pedestrian and cyclist traffic.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Josh Hempel, owner of Blacklight Taxi. “To increase the speed anywhere on Highway 50 is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Cyclist Peter Fink said he’s scared enough as it is riding down Highway 50.
“I don’t know how it feels to you to have a car passing you at 35, 40 mph,” he said. “Increasing the speed limit makes it more dangerous for cyclists.”
The council voted to draft a letter to Caltrans, informing them of the opposition to the increase, explaining South Lake Tahoe’s push to increase bicycle and pedestrian traffic and requesting another speed survey be done during a time that better reflects average speeds on Highway 50.
Caltrans plans on presenting the letter to its legal department to see whether any of the material presents a legal reason it should not raise the speed limit, Caltrans spokeswoman Deanna Shoopman said.
The agency is obligated to update the speed limit to reflect recent speed surveys because enforcement of speed laws requires it. Violations of speed limits that do not have the backing of a recent speed survey do not stand up in court, said councilman Bruce Grego, who is also a lawyer.
Caltrans is expected to have an answer as early as next week as to whether or not concerns presented by the council and the community pose a legal problem to increasing the speed limit, said Traffic Operations Chief Pat Kelley. If the agency does move forward with the increases, new speed limits could be in place within two months, she said.