Officials worry about potential Highway 50 closures |

Officials worry about potential Highway 50 closures

Susan Wood
Dan Thrift / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Workers assess the landslide just a few hours after it closed Highway 50 in 1997.

With the winter season knocking on the door, South Lake Tahoe civic, business and state leaders are trying to drum up support for an alternative to Highway 50 if it’s closed due to a slide.

The fear is damage from the 7,700-acre Fred fire north of Kyburz off Highway 50 may prompt a mudslide, cutting off economic lifeblood to a region reliant on tourism. One need only look to the road closure in 1997 to feel the pinch of tourism dollars going out the window.

Former South Lake Tahoe Mayor Tom Davis said the South Shore economy lost $1 million each day the road was closed. Warm rains on New Year’s Eve caused landslides that shut down Highway 50 from Jan. 1 to Jan. 15 and Jan. 24 to Feb. 24.

The Mormon Emigrant Trail, also known as Iron Mountain Road, could serve as a detour to the lake in the event of a Highway 50 closure.

In 1997 the road was used as a detour but it was then owned and plowed by El Dorado County. It is now owned by the U.S. Forest Service which has an agreement with Caltrans. However, the state agency says budget problems and manpower have proven to be an obstacle in plowing the Mormon Emigrant Trail. So a number of business and civic leaders from the city to the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce have made a plea for intervention.

California Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, has agreed to meet with transportation District Director Jody Jones on Jan. 4.

“It’s really a challenge given the fiscal situation of the state,” said Leslie’s aide, Jedd Medefind.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Dave Solaro said El Dorado County officials will write to Alpine County and Kirkwood Mountain Resort in the hope of receiving funds for a private contractor to plow the road, which connects with Highway 50 just north of Pollock Pines and Highway 88 south of Silver Lake.

“I think we would benefit from it, but I’d have to bring it to my board,” Alpine County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Teresa Burkhauser said Friday. “We did (benefit) when the road was closed (during the Fred fire) because people came around this way, but they didn’t necessarily stop. They did buy a few maps.”

And, there could be a delayed benefit in people seeing the area – with the idea visitors would return when they have more time.

“Historically, we’ve supported those efforts when they’re brought before (Alpine) County. (The traffic) impacts our business and those in South Lake Tahoe. We’ve had experience where our business has been boosted when Highway 50 is closed,” said Dave Likins, president of Kirkwood Mountain Resort development.

Time is something Tahoe business people may be running out of if there’s a snowslide or drenching rain that closes the road.

Andy Strain, a Heavenly Mountain Resort planner who serves on the South Shore Transportation Management Association, warned that if it takes too long to make a decision a crew may be unable to plow it.

“They may not be able to even find the road. By then it’s too late. The horses have already left the barn,” he told members of the South Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Douglas chambers of commerce during their meeting at the Horizon Casino Resort last Thursday.

The call to arms comes at a time when tourism agency cooperation appears at its highest for a market having to pool its resources to compete with the likes of Aspen, Miami, New York and Park City to name a few popular destinations.

At this point, Strain said Caltrans considers Interstate 80 a sufficient detour to the lake. The comment drew a gasp from the audience because of its possible diversion of visitors to the North Shore or Reno.

When Highway 50 closed for a few days in October, business managers expressed relief it occurred in the off season and only thousands of dollars were estimated as lost. They could very well experience a loss in the millions if severe winter conditions close the road in the next few months.

“Soils adjacent to Highway 50 will become increasingly moist and soaked and the potential for slides from the fire area onto the road will increase over time,” City Manager Dave Jinkens wrote in a letter to Jones.

But even though “a catastrophic slide is always a remote possibility,” the effort would cause the state agency “to redirect critical resources away from (Highway) 50,” Jones responded.

– Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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