Roundabouts: Take the story with a grain of salt |

Roundabouts: Take the story with a grain of salt

Jim Scripps

I, like a lot of South Tahoe residents, am skeptical about a proposal to build a roundabout in town. It’s an issue that has divided many residents, and even raised the specter of a recall of one of our city councilors.

And it is for this reason, and for readers like me, that the paper endeavors to look at the roundabout proposal critically, and write stories about it. It’s the reason we wrote last Tuesday about a similar roundabout debate in Vail, Colo. There, the debate played out over a decade, and they ended up voting yes, and built their first roundabout in 1995. Now they have four of them, and traffic moves without any stoplights in town.

So why did we choose Vail as the “experiment” for a South Tahoe roundabout?

The answer is simple: We can’t find another city (beyond our reporting on Truckee and Carson City locally) that mirrors more closely the dynamics that exist here.

In Vail, they deal with roughly the same climate as South Lake Tahoe. Of course we have better snow, but it does snow there in the winter. Much of the roundabout debate in South Tahoe has centered around the issue of snow removal and driving on ice. People argue a roundabout would invite spin-outs and be a trouble spot for road-clearing. In Vail, according to the people our reporter talked to, it isn’t a problem.

Vail is a tourist-driven economy. So are we. The two communities deal with an influx of tourists on the weekend, both in summer and winter – and Vail doubles, triples, quadruples its population on busy weekends. We know what that’s like. And part of the argument here has focused on tourism traffic. In Vail, construction of several roundabouts in town has decreased traffic wait times. To get back to town from Beaver Creek ski area, a drive that used to take 30 minutes has been reduced to 5 minutes, according to Ian Anderson, spokesman for the Vail Valley Chamber of Commerce. Here, much of our wintertime traffic nightmare is related to the end of the ski day at Heavenly and Kirkwood ski resorts.

And Vail, like South Lake Tahoe, is increasingly becoming a second-home haven. That means more people, more often, are not familiar with local streets. In Vail they have time shares occupied by visitors. That’s where we are going, too. And if an expansion of Marriott is approved and built, this will become an increasingly visible part of our population mix.

Vail has tracked traffic accidents, and compared them to statistics before the roundabouts came to fruition. Some who oppose the roundabout here have theorized accidents will increase in the wake of its construction. Despite increasing car capacity by 56 percent, roundabouts in Vail have produced a reduction in accident injuries to the tune of 75 percent, according to our reporting.

After the roundabout debate ended in Vail, filmmaker Warren Miller, one of the most ardent leaders of the roundabout opposition, even submitted a cartoon of himself eating crows to the local paper.

We went into the story with an open mind, and found Vail’s experience to be positive on most fronts, regarding most of the issues we are arguing here. Of course, there are key differences between Vail and South Lake Tahoe, the most obvious being population.

The town of Vail has a smaller population, but much of the local housing is spread throughout the expanse of Vail Valley, outside the city limits. Most of our residents live in a compact area (relative to Vail), within the city limits of South Lake Tahoe.

And the roundabouts in Vail service one of several routes used by vehicles traveling the long, thin corridor of the valley. Here, the proposal to build a roundabout focuses on Lake Tahoe’s busiest intersection, which drivers must negotiate to get to certain areas. Here, Highway 50 is our highway and our “Main Street.”

So does Vail mirror perfectly the situation that exists in South Lake Tahoe? No. But it isn’t necessarily apples and oranges. It’s more like apples and pears. But then again, we weren’t comparing roundabouts as much as we were comparing towns.

Does our reporting insinuate that South Lake Tahoe would also have the same positive experience? No.

And does our reporting suggest we should build a roundabout in South Lake Tahoe? No. That’s up to our residents and their elected politicians to decide. Right now, the overwhelming majority – 55 percent according to the city’s survey earlier this year – don’t want a roundabout. Even if it is better, even if it will solve all our traffic problems, even if it will have pretty trees in the middle, that doesn’t mean it should be built. There are a lot of things we could do to improve our town. Gauging public opinion, the roundabout isn’t seen as a priority.

So take the Vail story with a grain of salt. We didn’t present it as a carbon copy of South Lake Tahoe, just the experience of another Alpine ski town with similar characteristics.

– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be contacted at

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