Road to 21st Century is crumbling |

Road to 21st Century is crumbling

Rick Chandler

You are now entering South Lake Tahoe: Please reduce speed.

If you’re driving around and notice your head bumping the ceiling of your vehicle, well, get used to it. The quality of Tahoe’s roads are declining at an alarmingly rapid rate, and there seems to be no relief in sight.

An El Dorado County Department of Transportation study reports that 80 percent of Tahoe’s roads are in substandard condition, and approximately 50 percent are in need of major maintenance. And the City of South Lake Tahoe, which maintains 127 miles of street that do not fall under the county’s jurisdiction, doesn’t have much better news to report.

In a nutshell, Lake Tahoe roads and streets are in dire straits, and there doesn’t seem to be any funding on the horizon to fix the problem.

Will we all be traveling on gravel roads in the next millennium?

“We’re severely underfunded in the Tahoe Basin,” said County Department of Maintenance Deputy Director Tom Celio. “We have a system we call the Pavement Condition Index, in which we rate the condition of the roads on a scale of zero to 100. Half of county-maintained roads (in the Tahoe area) come in at under 50. That’s fairly serious.”

The county maintains approximately 150 miles of road in the Tahoe Basin, and has been deferring maintenance on much of it due to budget shortfalls.

“We’ve been using a Band-aid approach for a lot of problems,” Celio said. “We can patch things, but that leads to major problems in the future.”

Specifically in need of repair are the county stretch of Pioneer Trail from the South Lake Tahoe City limits to Meyers, and Lake Tahoe Blvd., past the Y.

“There are also some bad streets in the Tahoe Paradise area, on Upper Truckee,” said County Highway Superintendent Tom Halverson. “We’ve got a lot of alligators (bad cracking) in that area.

“There are some spots that are worse than others, but we obviously need more maintenance and reconstruction than we’re budgeted for.”

The City of South Lake Tahoe has similar concerns.

“Twenty years ago we had a (road maintenance) budget of $300,000,” said Scott Rogers of the South Lake Tahoe City Department of Transportation. “We have the same budget today. That means we can only pave three or four miles of street in 1998, compared to 10 miles in 1968. We only have about half the funding we need.”

The city and county maintain only six bridges in the area, and all are in good shape. But the roads are another matter. Many of the big problems are occurring in low-lying areas such as Tahoe Keys, where roads have a tendency to crack when the water table rises.

Plus, most of Tahoe’s roads have been in place for decades — constructed before the modern practice of laying a base mat under the asphalt pavement.

“In the old days, you just flattened an area and put down pavement,” Rogers said. “Now, we have a membrane-mat (called PetroMat) we put down under the inch-and-a-half of asphalt road. Without the base mat, areas that are sandy or on high water tables will show problems. Many of Tahoe’s roads fall into that category.”

CalTrans — the State Department of Transportation — is responsible for the major highways in the Basin, including construction-clogged Highway 50. And Douglas County currently has two major construction projects underway, at Kingsbury Grade and Highway 50 in Stateline.

But while those construction delays have proved irksome to Tahoe motorists, at least there is construction occurring. The alternative — undriveable surface streets — could be a reality in Tahoe in the near future.

A sales tax initiative to provide road funding has been discussed, and may go before voters soon.

“The citizens would decide on that,” Celio said. “But from our perspective, it doesn’t look like there is anyone lining up to save our roads. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

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