Frustrations linger from Saturday’s traffic jam |

Frustrations linger from Saturday’s traffic jam

Sara Thompson and Elaine Goodman
Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily Tribune Traffic was backed up from Zephyr Cove past Stateline on Saturday evening after the Opening Days Lake Tahoe block party, which shut down Highway 50 through the casino corridor.
Jonah M. Kessel | Jonah M. Kessel / Tahoe Daily Tr

Opening Days Lake Tahoe brought more than 15,000 people to the South Shore casino corridor Saturday, allowing some lodging establishments to turn on “No Vacancy” signs for the first time this year.

But the event presented by the Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority also brought a problem: a major traffic jam.

Highway 50 through the casino corridor was closed to traffic for a street festival Saturday, and drivers were routed onto Lake Parkway, which was turned into a one-way, counterclockwise loop for the event. The detour was supposed to have two lanes of traffic moving in one direction.

It didn’t always work out that way.

Despite road cones, signs and officers standing in the road waving their arms, motorists were reluctant to drive in the left lane, which on other days would be driving the wrong way, according to South Lake Tahoe police Lt. David Stevenson. Instead, they would keep trying to merge into the other lane of traffic.

Stevenson said he was describing traffic patterns on the California side of the loop; the Nevada Highway Patrol controlled traffic on the Nevada side.

After traffic flow increased, it was more apparent to drivers that they were supposed to be using both lanes of Lake Parkway. But even then, distractions such as people pulling out of driveways slowed traffic flow.

And as traffic grew heavy at about 2:30 to 3 p.m., “It absolutely ground to a halt,” Stevenson said.

As thousands of festivalgoers enjoyed live music, a motocross show and a bikini pageant, motorists on Highway 50 faced delays of two to three hours. Backups extended to Al Tahoe Boulevard on the California side and nearly to Zephyr Cove in Nevada.

Motorcycles were overheating, one driver was allowed to turn around because he was almost out of gas, and a frantic woman stuck in traffic told officers she was going to miss her own wedding.

At the South Lake Tahoe police station Saturday, Chief Terry Daniels helped answer phones as more than 300 calls poured in from people wondering about the traffic backup.

“The phones were just ringing off the hook,” Daniels said Monday. “There were a lot of people who were angry.”

Although motorists had been warned to expect traffic delays during the special event, “I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be two hours,” Daniels said.

The highway closure lasted from 8 a.m. to about 7:20 p.m.

The gridlock prompted several South Shore officials to question whether the road closure should be allowed for next year’s event. This is the second year Highway 50 has been closed for the Opening Days festivities, and this year’s traffic plan was intended to improve the flow of traffic.

“It didn’t work last year, it didn’t work this year, so something needs to change,” said Dennis Oliver, spokesman for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

TRPA issued a permit for the event, and Oliver said that next year, the event will be examined more critically.

The LTVA presented the traffic plan to city officials in March, and the city agreed to have police help with traffic control for the event.

City Manager David Jinkens on Tuesday called the traffic backup “unacceptable.”

“We thought the issues were going to be overcome. The fact is, it didn’t work,” Jinkens said.

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Mike Weber said a report will be written by the police department after all the data from officers and aerial pictures are gathered. CALSTAR crews flew over the area and got some photographs.

From here, Weber said if there are correctable areas, they need to be identified and fixed. If it can’t be corrected, he said this is not something that people would want to do again.

The LTVA Board will debrief the event at its next meeting Thursday.

LTVA Board President Pat Ronan said the event itself was fantastic, but the traffic problem left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

Ronan said only one lane on the loop road was being used when he drove around it. “It doesn’t make much sense that (the traffic plan) wasn’t implemented,” Ronan said.

Carol Chaplin, LTVA executive director, said other variables need to be examined in evaluating the traffic jam. Other events took place over the weekend, such as a disc golf tournament, Little League all-stars and a soccer tournament.

“There are many different layers to this event and we have tons of stuff to take a look at,” Chaplin said. “We’re going to take this knowledge and improve and reinvent it. At its core, it’s a good event.”

Another traffic measure that frustrated drivers was the closure of Montreal Road, a popular route from Pioneer Trail to Lake Parkway. Stevenson said police decided to close the road in the morning to avoid merging traffic where Montreal and Heavenly Village Way feed into Lake Parkway. But faced with backups on the side streets and driver complaints, Montreal Road was reopened at about 1 p.m.

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