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El Dorado Country roads still feeling winter’s wrath

Rick Chandler

Don’t look now, but South Lake Tahoe’s bridge to the 21st Century is slowly falling apart.

Two seasons of extended winter storms have pounded El Dorado County bridges and roadways, and guys like Tom Celio are wondering how long they can keep their fingers in the dike.

“We’re dealing well with the damage right now,” said Celio, Deputy Director of Maintenance with the County Department of Transportation. “But what happens down the road is another matter. We are quite literally losing ground.”

Currently, residents and tourists are finding smooth motoring in El Dorado County in general and South Lake Tahoe in particular. But the local transportation maintenance infrastructure is seriously underfunded, and it is unclear as to whether state or federal dollars will be available to rescue roads and bridges as problems crop up in the not-to-distant future.

And problems will certainly crop up, according to many.

“El Dorado County has about 10 percent of the dollars it needs (for transportation maintenance),” said Transportation California Executive Director Larry Fisher. “The past two winters have had a heavy impact on local counties. In the long term, we’re looking at trouble.”

Caltrans has estimated $4.4 million worth of damage to the 1,046 miles of road they maintain in the county – 150 miles in the Tahoe Basin – over the past two years. But its maintenance budget falls far short of that, and many non-essential repairs have been deferred.

“The longer you put these things off, the higher the cost in the long run,” Celio said. “We’re currently complete with essential repairs, but we’ve had to put a lot of preventive measures on the back burner due to budget constraints.

“If we put off (the repairs) much longer, it’s soon going to cost five times the amount it would cost now.”

According to Caltrans’ annual survey, 16 county bridges are structurally deficient, meaning that the bridges are in need of “significant maintenance rehabilitation.”

“Many of our bridges are 40 to 50 years old,” he said. “All are functioning now, but eventually they’ll show problems.”

Here’s an example of what a typical repair project can cost: A bridge in Kyburz was destroyed last winter when several large logs bent the steel structure during a flood. It took five months to restore it. Price tag: $750,000.

“When bridges and roads are knocked out, emergency services can’t get through,” said Penny Hill, Western manager for the Road Information Program.

“It’s important to keep in mind that our problems don’t go away because El Nino is gone,” she said. “People should not relax. One bridge going out effects many people. It’s an ongoing issue.”

Indeed, the county can’t even seem to hold on to the money it already has.

In 1990 a massive transportation package sailed through the state legislature that doubled the gasoline tax and poured money into the state transportation coffers. But $1.2 billion of that has already been diverted to other programs by the federal government.

“Nobody could have predicted the recession (of the early ’90s),” said Bert Sandman, Transportation California chairman and president of Teichert Construction in Sacramento. “That’s one reason the federal government diverted the money. Also, changes in car fuel efficiency have eroded the base of the gasoline tax (which provides road maintenance funding), and natural disasters required more funds.

“We’re moving from a state unable to keep up with growth into a state where the (transportation) system is now deteriorating.”

Some help may be on the way, however. Senate Bill 1477 would provide $3 million in funding for road improvement in the county – but Gov. Wilson has not yet decided if he will sign it. Also, the recently passed Transportation Equity Act promises more money for special projects across the state – where it is estimated that roadway systems have incurred $485 million in damage this year alone.

“This year we’ve spent $14 million on highway 50,” said Celio of the artery that brings in an average of nearly 16,500 automobiles per day into South Lake Tahoe during the peak months of July and August.

“Imagine if that shut down?”

Tahoe merchants don’t have to imagine – it happened last year when a mud slide closed the highway for two weeks, dealing a huge blow to the local economy.

“It’s time to wake up,” Celio said. “This problem will not go away by itself.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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