A Closer Look: Pedestrians on Highway 50 face a perilous winter plight | TahoeDailyTribune.com

A Closer Look: Pedestrians on Highway 50 face a perilous winter plight

Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily TribuneA pedestrian walks along the shoulder of Highway 50 on Wednesday afternoon. Accumulated snow often forces people to walk in the road.

As I started walking home from work the evening of Jan. 6 – the weekend of our major snowstorm – I eyed the area along Highway 50 next to El Dorado Beach with skepticism. Where a pedestrian ordinarily had a choice between a paved trail or a well-trampled dirt path, there now was a layer of knee-deep snow. I tentatively tried following a set of uneven footprints through the white stuff, and quickly fell over. Getting back on my feet in the still-soft snow was a challenge, and I imagined my colleagues still at work in the Tribune newsroom hearing a call over the police scanner: “Subject down near Lakeview Avenue; trouble unknown.”

The heck with this, I thought, I’m walking in the street.

Welcome to my new column, in which I will take a closer look at the inner workings of local government each week. I’ll try to answer a question that many of you in the community may be wondering about, too.

Today’s question, if you haven’t guessed it, is: Why doesn’t someone remove the snow along Highway 50 so pedestrians can get around safely?

South Lake Tahoe is notorious for the shortage of sidewalks along its main thoroughfare, Highway 50, but in summer there are at least dirt paths to walk on.

As I trudged down the road that evening, most motorists were considerate and gave me some extra space, but there was the ongoing fear that someone would spin out and hit me. And I wondered what it must be like for those who must walk along Highway 50 regularly, say, to catch a bus to work, or those who needed to walk somewhere with a child.

When it comes to snow removal from the Highway 50 paths and sidewalks, there are three main players: the city, Caltrans and private businesses:

— The city. South Lake Tahoe’s Parks and Recreation Department is responsible for clearing snow from multiuse trails (paved paths that can be used by pedestrians or bicyclists). Those along Highway 50 include the so-called Linear Park trail east of Ski Run Boulevard, a trail along El Dorado Beach and a trail set back from the road a bit near the library and Rufus Allen Boulevard.

Parks director Gary Moore said that if more than 4 inches of snow falls, the department typically brings out a snowblower and clears those trails “immediately.” “We’re trying to make Highway 50 safe,” he said. But the department’s snowblower broke down at the beginning of this month’s storms, and it took four days to get the part to fix it, causing a significant delay in clearing the paths, Moore said.

— Caltrans. Much of the area used by pedestrians along Highway 50 is Caltrans right-of-way. When asked what Caltrans does to remove snow from those areas, spokeswoman Shelly Chernicki was blunt: “We do not clear them,” she said. “We do not have the equipment, we do not have the resources. … It’s never been our practice to do so.”

But Chernicki said Caltrans does at least one thing to help pedestrians. When snow is cleared from Highway 50, it’s pushed to the center of the road (and later removed), rather than piling it up on the side and into the path of pedestrians.

— Private business. Peter Baumann, owner of the Swiss Chalet restaurant, is among those who clear the sidewalk around their businesses. He sees it as a public service. “I do the sidewalks just so people can get through to the bus stop and crosswalk on Sierra Boulevard,” he said. “It makes us look good.”

City Manager David Jinkens acknowledged in an e-mail that “a better system of sidewalks and maintenance is desirable and is needed.” A Highway 50 makeover including sidewalks, curbs and gutters has long been a goal of the city – and is a topic for another day. Once the improvements are in place, Jinkens said, officials will need to determine who will pay maintenance costs, which are expected to be formidable.

Meanwhile, the Heavenly Village redevelopment project is equipped with a “snow melt” system in the pavement that helps melt snow and ice. Wonder if such a system would be at all practical when our new sidewalks are installed.

– Questions and comments on “A Closer Look” are welcome and encouraged. Send them to egoodman@tahoedailytribune.com or call (530) 542-8006.

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