Luther Pass paved but cyclists left in the rough |

Luther Pass paved but cyclists left in the rough

Susan Wood

Cyclist Jeff Matthews rides along the edge of the new asphalt paving on Highway 89 from Meyers to Luther Pass. / Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune

Motorists aren’t the only ones getting pinched by high oil prices.

Bicyclists who ride Highway 89 up Luther Pass will find an overlay set by Caltrans a month ago that extends to the edge of the travel lane – and that’s where it stops.

Caltrans says it stopped short of extending its work onto the shoulders used by cyclists because, among other things, the oil used in its overlays has gotten too expensive.

Most cyclists ride where the lip between the old and the new pavement lies, requiring a good sense of balance to negotiate. Cyclists agree it’s a hindrance and hazard to ride on two levels of roadway.

“What they did is terrible,” said cyclist and bike ride promoter Joe Marzocco. “Why didn’t they pave out to the edge? We’re paying for this road? It’s like riding down the road on Highway 50. You take your life into your own hands.”

Marzocco organizes the annual Death Ride, one of the area’s premier cycling events.

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To save money and time in construction, Caltrans put in a thin-layered mix of oil, water and gravel called a slurry seal. The preventive maintenance treatment – considered a stop-gap measure to a standard overlay – can extend the life of a road by at least five years, but it costs $15,000 per lane, per mile.

Asphalt is not cheap. The cost of the oil-based substance has about doubled in a year. In 2003, it cost $150 to $170 a ton. Last year, it would cost road crews $300. Add the transportation fuel expenditures, and road improvements can turn into a costly venture.

Regardless of the thickness of a layer, there’s no full Class 2 bike lane on the thoroughfare between El Dorado and Alpine counties.

“The point is, when we do a slurry seal, we just cover the width of the travel lane. We try to do what we can to accommodate traffic. We can’t just add shoulders,” said Joe Caputo, Caltrans deputy district director of maintenance.

But tell that to the recreation minded in South Lake Tahoe.

Jeff Matthews, another Alta Alpina Cycling Club rider, rode on the new Highway 89 asphalt on one recent weekend day. He felt it was unsafe to pedal in the motorists’ travel lane.

“A lot of motorists don’t understand why we ride in the lanes. This is why,” he said. “If we talk about biking in the basin, we should start with the major arteries,” he said.

But there may be hope in the future for cyclists. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, along with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control, has listed a curb/road-widening project among its $908 million worth of slated environmental improvement programs. The water-quality improvement ranks No. 4 in a list of 10 high priority projects, TRPA said Monday. Other than the ranking, there’s no timeline scheduled for doing the work. The project is unfunded at this point.

By next summer, Caltrans plans to lay a slurry seal on Highway 89 between the “Y” and D.L. Bliss State Park around Emerald Bay.