El Dorado County plans complete road closures for Meyers area on Labor Day | TahoeDailyTribune.com

El Dorado County plans complete road closures for Meyers area on Labor Day

Meyers residents craft plan calling for turn restrictions

Ryan Hoffman | rhoffman@tahoedailytribune.com

MEYERS, Calif. — After a failed attempt to ease holiday traffic issues in nearby neighborhoods with the use of one-way road closures, El Dorado County traffic officials are planning complete closures of two roads this Labor Day.

But a group of Meyers residents has put forward their own proposal calling for more than a dozen turn restrictions intended to prevent drivers from using neighborhood streets as shortcuts to circumvent the backlog of cars on U.S. 50 following busy weekends at the lake.

Questions about the proposal remain, but the county’s transportation director says he intends to explore the idea in September. Depending on stakeholder and community input, a pilot program could be put forward toward the end of the year.

“We will be having a traffic advisory meeting … and this topic will be brought up at that meeting,” Rafael Martinez, transportation director, told the Tribune.

Although the traffic issue has received less widespread attention than it did during the winter months, when drivers were stuck on the highway and side streets for hours at a time, it is still a top-of-mind problem in the community, said Tony Risso, a Meyers resident who was part of the group that crafted the turn restriction proposal.

“The bottom line is I don’t go anywhere on Sunday just because I can’t — you can’t get out on Highway 50 whatsoever. So the residents here have just decided ‘let’s stay home on Sundays.’ Yeah, that stinks but if push comes to shove we can live with that,” Risso said.

What can’t be tolerated, he added, is when the problem prevents responders from being able to reach the scene of an emergency, whether that be a medical situation, fire or other critical event where every minute matters.

This past winter solidified the severity of the traffic issue, said Tim Alameda, fire chief with Lake Valley Fire Protection District.

During a community meeting in Meyers on Feb. 1, Alameda told the audience gathered that emergency services would be able to respond despite the traffic, although it might take a little longer.

Then the month of February dumped record snowfall in the Sierra.

“Our operations chief called and said we have a real problem,” Alameda said recalling a situation where multiple vehicles became stuck on a neighborhood street that had been slimmed down to one lane due to the snow berms on both sides of the road. The vehicles effectively shut down the road.

“That was the turning point where I said ‘enough, we need to keep tourist traffic on the main roads … keep them off the neighborhood streets,’” Alameda told the Tribune.

Searching for solutions

Local officials have been trying in recent years to manage the traffic issue on Meyers-area neighborhood streets — a problem many attribute to the increased use of navigation apps, which regularly recommend taking side streets in order to cut ahead of the backlog on U.S. 50 following busy weekends and holidays.

El Dorado County has, to name a few, revised its traction ordinance, installed barriers to “nudge” cars back to U.S. 50, pleaded with the navigation company Waze and explored other options. None of those have produced the desired outcome.

On the Sunday following the July 4 holiday weekend, the county closed North Upper Truckee Road and Sawmill Road in the direction heading toward U.S. 50 in Meyers.

Martinez said the intent of only closing the road in one direction was to force vehicles heading into Meyers to turn around while allowing a route for emergency vehicles to get around the barriers if needed.

However, cars started driving around the barricade and the partial closure did not register on navigation apps such as Waze, which is owned by Google.

“Because it was a partial closure, the apps picked up the vehicles going through and so they continued to send people that way,” Martinez said.

A Waze spokesperson did not directly respond to a question asking if the act of driving around partial road closures would signal to the app that the road is actually open. In a statement the spokesperson said the app does recognize closures and local traffic laws.

“If a city submits closure info, we make those updates within the Waze map. It is always our goal to comply with local laws and regulations and are happy to have an open dialogue with cities. We’re dedicated to eliminating traffic and congestion and have been working with other municipalities in the California area, including the nearby city of Sacramento. We encourage municipalities to join Waze for Cities Data, which is the best way for us to get timely information and changes to roadways. City officials will also have access to the Waze map and editor tools so they can proactively communicate real-time closures.”

Full closures on Labor Day

In response to the failure of the July 4 one-way closure, the county is now planning complete closures of both roads on Labor Day, Sept. 2, from roughly 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Both closures will be manned by a county employee who can move the barrier for emergency vehicles.

The additional cost for manning the two closures on Labor Day amounts to approximately $400, which is in addition to the original $1,600 total estimated for the July 4 and Labor Day closures, according to Martinez.

He conceded that the complete closure is more costly and impactful for drivers, especially residents. But, he added, the county is running out of options that fit within the framework of the law.

California state law prevents limiting access on public roads to only a certain group of people.

“If the county is maintaining a public road then it has to remain open to the public,” Martinez said. “We have to abide by the laws of California.”

“We’re trying to do everything that we can within the law and unfortunately these app companies don’t make it easier for us,” he added.

In the statement provided to the Tribune, a Waze spokesperson said the company is committed to working with local partners to reduce traffic.

“Waze is designed to thoughtfully and carefully reduce traffic by directing drivers away from places that are already congested — not to send everyone down the same route, which would make traffic worse. We are fully committed to partnering with cities and transit authorities to solve shared transportation challenges, as evidenced by our work with more than 1,000 partners globally through our Waze for Cities Data Program, which shares real-time anonymous road data and traffic management tools.”

Potential of turn restrictions?

In consulting with various officials, Risso said he and others believe the turn restrictions show some potential to address a situation in which solutions have proven elusive.

The proposal call for “no turn” restrictions at 13 intersections. For some of those intersections, the proposal also includes additional warning signs to alert motorists before arriving at the actual intersection.

What makes the proposal appear promising, Risso said, is the ability to “retrain” drivers, because California Highway Patrol would have the ability to enforce the restrictions.

“CHP has stated the minute this thing is up they can start the enforcement,” Risso told the Tribune.

CHP Lt. Terry Lowther in the South Lake Tahoe area confirmed officers would be able to enforce the restrictions.

The lieutenant declined to speculate on how effective the restrictions might be, saying he will provide his opinions once a proposal is presented to the county.

However, he did tell the Tribune that he did not see any “red flags” when reviewing the proposal.

“There’s not anything that I would look at and say ‘nope, this isn’t going to work,’” Lowther said.

El Dorado County’s Martinez said there are some details that will have to be discussed. For example, should the county limit when the turn restrictions are in effect? The county does have the ability to limit them to, as an example, weekends only.

But Martinez said the issue is not cut and dried, as some holidays — often the busiest times of year at Tahoe — fall on different days of the week from year to year. And in some instances, such as Fourth of July this year, the busiest travel day might fall on a day other than the holiday.

Those are details Martinez said he would want to discuss going forward.

There also are some safety questions about forcing motorists to make left turns at some intersections during the winter months when traction and visibility can become poor.

And since the turn restrictions will apply to all drivers, not just tourists, Martinez would want to host community meetings to discuss the proposal before moving forward with a pilot program.

“I am more than open to looking in to doing a pilot for those turn restrictions,” he said. “The only thing is, I have to have a conversation with the public first.”

Risso is hoping he and others can rally enough community support for the restrictions with the goal of getting them implemented soon.

“We’re trying to get this done as soon as possible,” Risso said.

Martinez said he plans to begin the process of discussing the turn restrictions and the possibility of full closures following Labor Day. From there, the hope would be to begin engaging the public and, depending on public input, put forward a pilot program in December ahead of the busy winter season.

He acknowledged the public frustration expressed by some members of the community over the pace at which solutions have been explored.

“The gears of government do move slowly, but it’s because they want to protect everybody,” he said.

He added, “I think eventually we will come up with something that will at least bring a little relief to the community.”