Officials strategize repairs for crumbling Tahoe roads |

Officials strategize repairs for crumbling Tahoe roads

El Dorado County DOT applies hot mix asphalt to troublesome patch on Pioneer Trail in South Lake Tahoe.
Provided/Rafael Martinez/EDC DOT

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Record breaking snowfall, use of heavy equipment to make roads passable coupled with normal traffic has deteriorated roadways within the basin. Drivers are daily challenged to traverse roadways safely while simultaneously dodging potholes, big ones.

“Residents and visitors must be aware of the roadway conditions and be careful not to drive into a pothole. Unfortunately, the roadways have many potholes, including along Caltrans and county roads,” a recent press release from the city of South Lake Tahoe warned.

The cavernous trenches, particularly on the South Shore, have become the focus of local social media threads, some claiming the roads are cheaply repaired. Basin-wide, drivers are forced to swerve to avoid holes, or risk taking damage to their cars.

“It’s a value issue, really, a balancing act between quality and making sure we get to 1,100 miles of road, 200 of which are in areas that get snow normally,” said Road Maintenance Division Manager of Placer County Matt Randall and added that the goal is to maximize tax dollars and make sure the department gets to everything during the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s constrained time frame of dig season, approximately May 1 to Oct. 15.

Randall added coordinating with utility under-grounding projects adds another layer to road maintenance.

When asked about the application of asphalt, the Nevada Department of Transportation told the Tribune that their requirements indicate both the use of hydrated lime and polymer modified asphalt binder on all asphalt pavement highways on the Nevada side of the Tahoe Basin. 

The chemical reaction that occurs when adding the hydrated lime increases longevity of the asphalt pavement by decreasing the rate at which it oxidizes and ages. During the winter, chemistry is also at play.

“Freezing and thawing is the enemy of the roads, it puts stress on the pavement and that stress basically breaks apart the pavement,” Randall said and added thermal expansion is a challenge every agency faces.

Meg Ragonese, NDOT public information officer, said maintenance is scheduled every two years.

“We inspect roadways potentially needing corrective maintenance or a pavement overlay,” Ragonese said. “We use a measurement of pavement smoothness known as the International Roughness Index to objectively and systematically evaluate the pavement condition, and prioritize those roadway preservation needs among other transportation goal areas.”

Every year agencies budget for snow removal and road maintenance. All agencies reported budgeting between $2-4 million annually.

“There is nothing more damaging than snow removal equipment,” said Rafael Martinez, of El Dorado County Director of Transportation.

The direction of the dollar changes if snow removal goes over budget, according to Martinez, the road budget is then used to supplement snow removal needs.

Agencies all around the lake have scheduled maintenance, construction and inspections but additionally ask for the community to report problem areas to the appropriate department.

Steve Nelson, Caltrans District 3 chief public information officer said, “It’s easy to get the departments confused with such close jurisdictions.”

Caltrans maintains the highways within the city of South Lake Tahoe which includes Emerald Bay Road/State Route 89 and Lake Tahoe Boulevard/U.S. Highway 50 to Stateline where NDOT takes over through US-50 and through SR-28 through Incline Village and Crystal Bay. Washoe County takes care of surface roads in that area.

The surface streets within city limits are maintained by the city of South Lake Tahoe Public Works. Outside city limits, the surface roads are maintained by El Dorado County’s Department of Transportation. Placer County Department of Transportation handles SR-89 from Tahoma to Tahoe Vista, and to Olympic Valley while Nevada County handles the Truckee area.

Caltrans said that on their stretch of the highways in the city, a product called Perma-Patch has been in use for more than 90 years. 

Nelson added, “Caltrans has experimented with other products, but Perma-Patch performs the best and can be applied even in wet weather.”

Caltrans said, “We’re trying address all cracking and potholes on Highway 50 as best we can during this break in the weather. A full pavement rehabilitation project is in development that will address that area but it’s still a couple seasons away.”

Martinez explained out of four options for repairing potholes the weather and existing surface conditions decide which is a viable option for the situation at hand. 

Martinez said cold mix is the most cost effective ideal treatment for the winter season but only lasts two to three weeks due to moisture while grind/pave and surface treatments are the most expensive and must be done during TRPA’s mandated construction period. 

The winter months narrows the options to two: cold mix and hot mix, neither of which are permanent solutions in inclement weather and require the agencies to revisit in the Spring.

Last week, hot mix was brought in by El Dorado County for a particularly challenging spot on Pioneer Trail. Martinez said the hot mix was trucked in from Sacramento and allowed crews to work on potholes one square foot in diameter, or larger, along Pioneer Trail up to the city line.

The city line is about 500 yards from Al Tahoe boulevard according to Martinez. 

The city of South Lake Tahoe was also out last Friday, Jan. 27, working to patch potholes with cold patch.

Assistant City Manager Lindsey Baker told the Tribune, “Recently, we purchased a new product that will activate with water and promises better adhesion to the surface area during the winter period. A better option is to fill the potholes with hot asphalt, but asphalt plants are not open yet in the area, and the temperatures are not high enough for the hot asphalt to work. This year, many potholes have occurred due to the repeated cycle of freeze and thaw.

“The city has an aging infrastructure due to a historical lack of funding,” Baker added. “However, this has changed since 2020, when Measure S was passed, and we have developed a plan to repave all the streets in the city. However, the funding only goes so far every year. In addition to road rehabilitation and reconstruction, we are developing a plan for maintenance using city resources to extend the life of the existing pavement.”

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