Street situation cooks up trouble
Here’s a nice little recipe for disaster. Take a busy highway and load it with impatient motorists. Add several pedestrians from out of town, and put ski boots on quite a few of them, to hinder their mobility. Take most of the paint off the crosswalk, so that it’s hard to see, even if you’re looking for it. Then throw in just a dash of bad weather, to limit visibility and to make the roads just a tiny bit slick.
What you’re cooking up is the stretch of U.S. Highway 50 just west of the casino corridor at the state line, right near Heavenly’s new gondola, at the cross street of Friday Avenue.
Those of us who drive that area on a regular basis have noticed a marked increase in foot traffic crossing the street. Most of the pedestrians crossing the street seem to be skiers, going to or coming from the new gondola. Many cross at the marked crosswalk, even though the paint is so worn that it is hard to locate. Several others cross at random points along the stretch, either because they don’t know about the crosswalk, or because they don’t care. Contributing to the problem is the layout of the highway (two lanes of traffic in either direction, with a turn lane in the center) that makes it difficult for vehicles in the outer lanes to see pedestrians coming from the other side of the street.
With all of these elements thrown into the pot, there have been an increased number of almost-accidents between pedestrians and motorists on this stretch of Highway 50. Regular drivers of the strip have commented on the increase of near-misses, but it isn’t just commuters who feel this way. Employees of businesses along the strip have said that both the number of walkers, and the number of almost-accidents are on the rise in that area. The police department also reports that officers on the street have noticed an increase in jaywalking complaints and anecdotes of instances in which pedestrians have come close to being hit by vehicles.
This isn’t to say that oh, the poor drivers are beset by naughty pedestrians. Rather, both motorists and walkers share the blame in the situation. When people attempt to cross at the walkway, located at the cross street, they have to wait for nearly forever for any of the drivers to actually stop and let them cross. And even when one lane of traffic does stop, as they should, there is no guarantee that any of the others will; pedestrians are often stranded in the middle of the road, waiting for a break in traffic so that they can dash across to the safety of the sidewalk.
So the pedestrians see that there is really no point in crossing the highway at the crosswalk (or perhaps they can’t even locate it, as worn as the paint is.) So they decide to attempt it wherever or whenever there is a chance to get across. As a result, drivers have no idea where or when a random pedestrian will step out into the street . This leads the driver to feel that, hey, since these pedestrians won’t cross where they should, there is no reason that I should stop at the crosswalk. And so the pedestrians at the crosswalk wait forever for traffic to stop and let them cross. It goes around and around, with nearly all parties involved contributing to what becomes a dangerous situation.
Now that spring seems to finally be coming to the basin, we may have made it through the season with no fatal incidents, and only one reported minor conflict between car and person. If the situation really is a result, in large part, of the new gondola bringing a significantly larger number of skiers to that part of Highway 50, then there is a window of opportunity to fix the problem before next ski season.
One step towards a solution would be to repaint the crosswalk, so that both pedestrians and motorists are more aware of its existence. This, however, is in the realm of Cal-Trans, and the subject has come up in this newspaper before. A while back, it was reported that the California Department of Transportation had the intention of not re-marking many crosswalks, on the basis that it would give pedestrians a false sense of security.
But the real solution is likely to be an entirely different dish altogether. Knowing Tahoe, it will probably involve that alphabet soup of agencies and organizations (TRPA, STPUD, LWQCB, etc.) that we’ve all had to choke down until it has become entirely unpalatable. Representatives from the town, the state, the environmental agencies, the business industry, and anyone else who shows an interest, will all probably have to attend meeting after meeting, hashing out some sort of an agreement.
Or perhaps, no one will accept any sort of responsibility, no meetings will be planned or attended, and no agreement will be made. And when the next winter rolls around, we will be faced with the same situation of motorist vs. pedestrian along that part of Highway 50. We’ve all been lucky this past season; the pot has simmered and bubbled, but that is all. If it continues to go unwatched, it is going to boil over, and someone is going to get burned.
-R. Keith Rugg is wire editor for the Tahoe Daily Tribune
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