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No easy answers when it comes to fixing South Shore streets

Adam Jensen
ajensen@tahoedailytribune.com
Adam Jensen / Tahoe Daily TribuneCars pass by crumbling pavement at the corner of Eloise Avenue and Dunlap Drive Wednesday afternoon.
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SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – There is a $300-million gorilla preying on South Lake Tahoe’s streets, and nobody knows how to stop it.

It’s traces are found in nearly every neighborhood of South Lake Tahoe.

Corners stay flooded long after a storm. Large chunks of road break off from the edges of streets. Cracks in the asphalt grow wider with every freeze-thaw cycle.

The gorilla is the deterioration of the city’s streets.

It’s a beast that could take more than $300 million to fix, according to city staff estimates on bringing the roadways up to California’s “complete street” standard.

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Just keeping the streets in their existing condition will cost about $3 million per year, an equally daunting number given the city’s fluctuating street maintenance budget.

Road maintenance funding at the city has been unstable, at best, for more than 15 years. Some years street maintenance is not funded at all.

“We are in a downward spiral as far as roadway condition,” said South Lake Tahoe Assistant Engineer Jim Marino during the council’s Jan. 11 meeting, where Mayor Hal Cole described street maintenance as the “300-pound gorilla in the room.”

City-wide improvements would likely take place during a 25- to 30-year timeline, but a steady stream of funding needs to be established now, Marino said.

The issue is “overwhelming,” Cole said, “but we have to find money for this and let the public know we’re concerned.” Cole said the most common complaint he hears from residents is the state of the roads.

During the meeting, city staff suggested exploring local tax measures, parking meter programs, residential water surcharges, redevelopment money, street cut fees, franchise fee increases, assessment districts, gas tax increases, the annexation of Heavenly Mountain Resort, federal grants and state grants as possible sources of street improvement money.

Each City Council member has their own thoughts on how a stable funding stream can be found for the improvements.

At some point the council will need to take a “hard stance” about how to fund street maintenance, Marino said.

On Thursday, Councilman Bruce Grego said he supported City Manager Tony O’Rourke’s suggestion that general obligation bonds be used to pay for street improvements.

A $5 million annual investment could allow $25 million in improvements to get under way, Grego said.

He said he is unsure of where the $5 million would come in the city’s almost $30 million annual general fund budget, but said he would continue to push the issue.

“If we don’t do anything, our roads will become dust,” Grego said.

Councilman Tom Davis was less than hopeful about the future of the streets, describing the $312 million estimated for complete streets an “impossible” goal.

“I don’t see it happening at all,” Davis said.

Only through state or federal grant funding will the city be able to meet the goal, Davis said. He said he would not support new taxes given the state of the economy.

“It’s important; the only way we’re going to do it is grants,” Davis said.

He acknowledged the budget problems facing the state and federal government, and said it will ultimately take an economic turnaround to free up those funds as well as improve the city’s income from hotel taxes.

Councilwoman Claire Fortier said getting every street in the city up to a “complete street” standard may not be a reasonable goal, but by getting highly visible projects, like the Highway 50 project and work along Pioneer Trail, completed, the council will be able to rebuild public trust and get public buy-in on improving streets.

“I think the key is to get real clear on what we need to get done,” Fortier said. Funding for street improvements is likely to come from a variety of sources, Fortier added.

Municipal bonds, assessment districts and parking meters for heavily-trafficked beaches are all concepts that need to be looked at, Councilwoman Angela Swanson said.

Getting the Heavenly Village parking garage to pay for itself may also help fund street maintenance, Swanson said. The garage loses more than $130,000 a year.

The councilwoman cautioned against thinking the streets will be fixed overnight, but said creating a street-maintenance plan and finding funding sources to pay for the plan will begin to solve problems that have long been ignored by the city.

The council is expected to discuss what priority it should place on street maintenance and improvement during a strategic planning workshop following their regular meeting Tuesday.


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