Truth Tahoe: Can tourists be taxed coming into Tahoe with toll booths?

Claire Cudahy
Paying Highway Toll. Men in the Car Paying the Toll. Highway Systems.
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

In November’s election, a special tax with funds earmarked for the repair and rehabilitation of city roads was voted down in South Lake Tahoe. At the time, the city had $41-million worth of deferred maintenance.

While some residents argued that the city should find the money within their budget, other conversations began on- and offline about where the city could earn revenue to fund a long-term roads program.

One recurring suggestion was taxing tourists by adding toll booths coming into the basin — an idea that, upon investigation, the Tribune found is unlikely to be implemented in the basin anytime soon.

First, toll booths cannot be added to existing roads.

“State and federal law prohibit tolling of existing roads, other than converting high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to high-occupancy/toll lanes,” explained Steve Nelson, spokesman for Caltrans District 3.

For a road to have a toll booth, it must receive approval from the California Transportation Commission or authorization through legislation prior to being built, said Nelson.

For example, the system of toll roads in Orange County was approved by the passage of a Senate bill in 1987. Only then was construction able to begin on the State Routes 73, 133, 241 and 261.

But additional roadways are not in the cards for the Tahoe Basin.

Julie Regan, external affairs chief at the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, pointed to the bi-state agreement — inked in 1969 and revised in 1980 — which controls development in the Tahoe Basin.

“As a core tenant of our compact between Nevada and California to protect the lake, we are not adding capacity to our roadways,” said Regan. “So it’s virtually impossible for a private toll way to come in and have a whole new way of getting around in the basin. That’s just not realistic.”

There are, however, other forms of tolling being explored in the U.S., most recently, congestion pricing.

With congestion pricing, drivers pay a fee to use the road during the busiest times of the day. The goal is to reduce traffic by motivating people to take alternative modes of transportation or avoid driving during peak times.

But, as Tahoe Transportation District Manager Carl Hasty pointed out, this form of tolling is more about reducing traffic than making money.

“A lot of the idea behind congestion pricing is about influencing choices and behavior rather than raising revenue,” said Hasty.

Traffic congestion, though a different issue than fixing South Lake Tahoe’s crumbling roadways, is another critical problem facing the basin.

While Hasty said congestion pricing could have an impact on the Sunday traffic jam in Meyers as visitors leave Tahoe on U.S. 50, he believes the better solution is to build a “multi-modal” transportation system that allows people to leave their cars at home.

New York is the latest city to contemplate congestion pricing as a means to reduce traffic and fund public transportation. This January, a state transit task force appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed an $11.52 fee for personal vehicles driving in Manhattan’s core — a suggestion that has come with mixed reviews.

Congestion pricing has not been implemented in the U.S. before, but the system has found success in international cities like London, Stockholm and Singapore.

London adopted congestion pricing for its city center in 2003, causing a 40-percent decrease in traffic. The fee, now about $15 a day, has generated roughly $2 billion for road and public transit upgrades.

It’s not a system that the Tahoe Basin is likely to see anytime soon.

TRPA’s Regan noted that when it comes to managing roadways and transit in the Tahoe Basin, the agency is focusing on utilizing new technology, connecting systems of trails and increasing public transit.

“This hasn’t been done in the United States yet, it’s something that we’re watching, but certainly something that is far down the road for Tahoe in terms of serious consideration because we have a lot of other things to fix first.”

Truth Tahoe is a recurring series that investigates commonly heard questions or claims in the community. To submit a question, email

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