Few answers to dealing with snow removal | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Few answers to dealing with snow removal

There was a lot of talk but no conclusion as to how Caltrans can speed up snow removal through South Lake Tahoe.

Ten guys and I sat around a table last week at the Chamber of Commerce to hash out the problem. Caltrans needs equipment that actually works and everyone needs to communicate better — those were the major revelations.

Caltrans has three maintenance stations in El Dorado County that are run by Norm Butts. They are in Placerville, Kyburz and South Lake Tahoe. Out of the local office he can deploy four plows, eight sand/plow combos, seven blowers and five graders. They are operated by 14 full-time employees and 15 part-timers. Another 10-14 people can be brought up from the Sacramento Valley in the big storms.

The problem is that the equipment is never all working at the same time. One blower has been out of commission for eight months, and Butts doesn’t expect it to ever be back on the roads. He said a replacement could be two to three years away.

His boss, Peter Azevedo who is the regional manager, was on hand but didn’t have much to contribute in the way of solving the problems of a clogged highway, massive berms and slick roadway. He did say he’s working on getting another blower up here, but was not too optimistic about the reality of it.

One blower can fill a truck in a matter of seconds. Four of the blowers were out last Thursday to scoop up the remnants of the center berm. Butts said a problem is that some dump trucks drivers, who are on contract, got fed up with the hassle of working Highway 50 in town and just up and left.

He said he would be shooting himself in the foot if he tore up their contract.

When it comes to Caltrans’ priorities, Highway 50 is No. 1 — that includes avalanche control. Keeping Luther Pass over Highway 89 is second, hauling snow is third and having traffic flow past Emerald Bay is fourth. Emerald Bay even gets its own special blower that isn’t used elsewhere.

Caltrans started the season without a full garage of operating equipment. Then parts break in the middle of a storm. With the need for competitive bidding, Caltrans — just like its city and county brethren — has a warehouse full of various brands. This complicates the matter when it comes to ordering parts and keeping them in stock.

Andrew Strain, in the government affairs division for Heavenly Ski Resort, said Caltrans needs to let the South Shore Transportation Management Association know in early summer what problems it anticipates for the coming winter so the TMA can do something about it.

It was Dick Powers, executive director of the TMA, who got the group together.

Money is going to be a key issue, what with Gov. Gray Davis proposing slashing $1.8 billion from transportation to balance the budget. Butts said it cost $204,000 to move the snow in the first December storm. As the calendar showed 2003, he has surpassed his annual budget of $225,000.

Azevedo said he is doing some horse trading to keep money flowing.

County Supervisor Dave Solaro said what he was hearing echoed meetings of three years ago and wonders if people have just gotten used to three consecutive mild winters and have forgotten what the highway looks like in a major dumping.

It was Pete Mac Roberts, former president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association, who was the most vocal about the need for Caltrans to better inform people about what the road conditions are like.

“It takes twice as long to get information as it did two years ago,” Mac Roberts said of the automated 800 number for Caltrans.

When he called last Wednesday there was no mention that it was taking people eight hours to reach the Bay Area from here. From the message he got he figured the road was wide-open, when the truth was it was gridlock.

Several in the room voiced the need for accurate information given to locals and tourists so all can plan accordingly.

Caltrans was not warm to the idea of the repeated suggestions that something be done about lengthening left turn lanes so traffic didn’t abruptly stop behind those people no longer going forward.

Phil Herback, with Harrah’s and Harveys government affairs division, said, “For three to four days there was one lane of traffic backed up. It killed business right before Christmas.”

Cut outs at key intersections would be helpful, he said.

Butts said if his crews make one cut out through the berm, then everyone wants one. Most at the table agreed plowing more than one car length in the left turn lanes at Ski Run, Al Tahoe, Pioneer and Sierra should be a mandate of Caltrans’.

One thing they all did agree to is that they should get together again. Others at the meeting included Bill Chernock, Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority executive director; Duane Wallace, South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce executive director; and Brad Vidro, South Lake Tahoe Public Works director.

Kathryn Reed is managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune. She may be reached at (530) 541-3880, ext. 251 or via e-mail at kreed@tahoedailytribune.com

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