South Lake Tahoe officials and environmental groups are asking Caltrans to move forward as planned with a project to improve two miles of U.S. 50, instead of scaling the project back. They’re also calling on the transportation department to live up to its complete streets initiatives for more pedestrian and bicycle friendly highways and at least temporarily fix other dangerous parts of the highway with narrow or crumbling bike lanes before a bicyclist gets hurt or killed.
“We’re trying to be a more bike-friendly community and we really need cooperation from our state arm of the transportation system,” said JoAnn Conner, a South Lake Tahoe City Council member. “When they talk about transportation and being innovative and more creative with walkable spaces and then pull their projects it’s very disappointing.”
Caltrans initially planned to overhaul two miles of highway from Trout Creek Bridge to the “Y” intersection with curbside Class 2 bike lanes, 5-foot sidewalks, bus pullouts and a pavement overlay, as well as stormwater drainage and treatment improvements to reduce the amount of fine sediment washing into Lake Tahoe.
The transportation department now intends to limit the project to one mile of highway between Trout Creek Bridge and Upper Truckee Bridge, work that would be done in 2017. Upgrading the second mile of highway from Upper Truckee Bridge to the “Y” would be put on hold for the foreseeable future because of higher than anticipated costs and funding shortages.
“As we got further into the project design, with right-of-way and utility conflicts, costs continued to go up and our programmed amount is $38.5 million, so the only way to stay on budget is to cut the scope in half,” said Steve Nelson, spokesman for Caltrans District 3.
“We’ve submitted a program-change request and basically we’re just awaiting headquarters’ approval. One reason we selected that stretch of the project, rather than from the bridge to the “Y,” is because most of the water quality improvements are in that stretch,” Nelson said.
Angela Swanson, a member of South Lake Tahoe City Council, said she’s disappointed to see Caltrans scaling back the work. Several years ago, Caltrans returned to state coffers more than $100 million that had been allocated to Tahoe road projects because of budget challenges, money that was never returned, she said.
Swanson also said more than $700 million in State Highway Operation and Protection Program money remains available for California road projects, none of which has been requested for District 3.
What Caltrans is doing in Tahoe flies in the face of initiatives to create walkable, pedestrian-friendly communities and reduce vehicle emissions, Swanson said. “It is just not tolerable or acceptable. In tone or content, what Caltrans has done is not something I’m willing to sit back and look at.”
Nelson said District 3 is not entitled to ask for any of the $100 million it returned to the state for other road projects and added that a request for $11.7 million in additional funding for the South Lake Tahoe project was turned down in late February.
“There’s no guarantee that there will be excess funds in the 2015-16 fiscal year, when the project is planned for (funding), so the decision had to be made now to cut the project limits in order to stay with the $38.5 million programmed amount,” Nelson said.
Caltrans is trying to retrofit 85 miles of highway on its side of the Lake Tahoe Basin with improved stormwater drainage and filtration at a total cost of about $530 million.
Gavin Feiger, of the Sierra Nevada Alliance and Lake Tahoe Sustainability Collaborative, said those groups want Caltrans to proceed with the full two-mile project and live up to its “complete streets” initiatives in the Lake Tahoe Basin. “It was so exciting to hear they would connect it all the way through. Now they’re taking it back out,” he said, applauding Caltrans for the improvements it has made in other parts of the U.S. 50 corridor in South Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe Sustainability Collaborative has identified at least eight sections of the U.S. 50 corridor where deteriorating pavements and curbs and narrow bike lanes put bicyclists at risk. Those areas are “in desperate need of repair” and should be fixed immediately if upgrades to create a safer bicycle and pedestrian corridor through South Lake Tahoe are years away, the group wrote in a letter to Caltrans.
“Immediate repairs are super important. We understand in 2017 they are planning on (upgrading the highway), but it’s just a matter of time until someone gets in a serious accident,” Feiger said.
Accidents do happen. A vehicle and bicycle collision on U.S. 50 near Tahoe Keys Boulevard Thursday afternoon put a Bay Area man in the intensive car unit with a broken collarbone, scapula and ribs, a dislocated shoulder and punctured lung, according to his wife. She said her husband was riding westbound along the highway when struck by an eastbound vehicle making a left turn.
“We recognize there are rough spots out there,” Nelson said about the need for repairs on U.S. 50. “Given that the project won’t start until 2017, they have money to do some paving. Last year they did 4,800 tons of asphalt at a cost of $762,000 between the ‘Y’ and Stateline. This year they have an additional $342,000 to do an additional 3,000 tons, so they’ll be doing that work and definitely take a look at those areas. The short answer is maintenance is aware of the issue and will do some shorter-term fixes with the construction project a few years out.”