South Tahoe residents, businesses continue search for traffic solutions
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The highway leaving South Lake Tahoe on any given weekend can look like a parking lot and that’s nothing new.
Businesses and residents in the Meyers community on Tahoe’s South Shore have suffered the consequences from Sunday traffic backups on U.S. Highway 50 from visitors leaving town.
Meyers and Christmas Valley residents have to deal with the sometimes five-hour wait to get through the roundabout while visitors leave the basin. While many travelers wait in their vehicles for hours, businesses have felt other pressures.
Businesses feel pressure from stuck motorists
Before the stay home order went into effect, Diane Guth, owner of Getaway Cafe in Meyers, says that while this backup creates an influx of people racing to use her restrooms every year, this year it has become troublesome due to the pandemic regarding public health concerns along with limited capacity allowance. And right now there’s no capacity amid the governor’s order.
“The county is dropping the ball and putting pressure on small businesses,” Guth said.
Guth says that she understands that people need to use the restroom especially after waiting for hours in traffic, but she said she can’t have that many people in her business due to the pandemic, especially now with indoor dining shut down.
“I feel their [tourists] pain,” she said. “I am so grateful to have tourism and I depend on tourists. I am trying to survive as a business owner.”
Guth said after she denied someone from using her facilities, the individual urinated in her parking lot.
“It is a problem that is going to get worse,” she said. “I don’t want to be a public restroom and I don’t feel like I should bear the burden for the county.”
Guth says that she knows other businesses in the community that are dealing with the same thing.
Kristi Cain, co-owner of Freel Perk Cafe, says that they have experienced this issue since they have owned the cafe which opened eight years ago.
Holiday Market in Meyers has also experienced the same influx of people using restrooms, but since their remodel have not had the same sort of issues. Nathan Minnis, the store manager, said that before the remodel, they would get lines for the restroom that were extremely backed-up, that spanned to the front of the store.
An employee at Bob Dog Pizza also said that before the order, they had a problem with it too. Large parties would get out of their car and come into the restaurant to use restrooms — sometimes purchasing only a drink which doesn’t really help the business.
In the final draft of the 2017 Meyers Area Plan, under Land Use Goals and Policies, Policy 1.4, states, “Encourage the development of a permanent multi-use community plaza in Meyers to provide visitor information, public parking and restrooms, and a central gathering place.”
There is still no public restroom available to motorists in Meyers.
Guth says that the county should be looking for other alternatives and could possibly create a temporary or permanent facility for people stuck in traffic in that area and it would be a “win-win” for all.
While the county has since moved into the stay home order, which also restricts indoor dining, the problem is bound to resurface as restrictions loosen once again and the snow continues to fly.
Residents also feeling the strain
Businesses aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure of backed-up traffic.
When traffic begins to line up on the highway, residential neighborhood roads that lead to the highway become gridlocked, preventing residents from coming and going from their homes.
Navigation apps like Waze and Google direct traffic through shortcuts in neighborhoods that lead to the highway. However, it has caused even more backup and problems for locals.
Residents deal with people knocking on doors asking to use bathrooms while being stuck in traffic. If they are turned away, sometimes they use their yards as restrooms.
Residents also have to wait for hours to get home during the westbound exodus.
Working on solutions
One way residents have tried to curb the gridlock is the “Right-Hand Turn Restriction proposal.”
In early October, county supervisors unanimously approved a pilot traffic program which would implement a right turn restriction at Sawmill and N. Upper Truckee roads at U.S. 50.
The turn restrictions will happen between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sundays and holidays starting in the spring through October.
Tony Risso, a Tahoe resident and one of the creators of the turn restriction proposal, says that while he has high hopes for implementing this, the real challenge comes from navigation app compliance.
“If you don’t have enforcement, it goes swiftly by the wayside,” he said. “This is not going to be a one, done and all over. It’s going to take some tweaking along the way.”
There are 21 roads that will have restrictions in the entire program, but the pilot program will feature just two major roads.
“The Right Turn Restriction will be interesting,” California Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Ruth Loehr said in an email. “We support it now and are willing to try it out, but more importantly, we want to support the local community and their wants.”
The pilot program won’t start until after the busy winter season on Memorial Day. The joint decision by El Dorado County and Caltrans to wait until this spring was due to that intersection being potentially dangerous if first implemented in the winter. For motorist who were met by the sign, their only recourse would be to make a left turn or u-turn at the intersection which potentially could pose a danger.
Another resident, former supervisor candidate Kenny Curtzwiler, suggested that the Food and Agricultural Codes, 5344 and 5349, could possibly help alleviate traffic from spilling into neighborhoods by making them go through the inspection station.
He researched the idea and has officials on record saying it could possibly work. He stresses that it would be wholly unenforceable for CHP, but all that’s needed is to electronically close certain roads so the apps can’t figure out a go-around for people stuck in traffic. He said no enforcement would be needed if the apps acknowledged the ag codes.
Rafael Martinez, El Dorado County Director of Transportation, said that possibly if wording is changed outlining the agricultural codes to make them more enforceable, maybe the apps would stop routing motorists through neighborhoods.
Martinez said 85% of the people going through residential neighborhoods trying to beat the traffic are being sent there by travel apps.
However, California Highway Patrol Officer Jeff Gartner said that the code was created for those who “willfully” avoid the agricultural station.
“Willfully” has been a key word in the creation of this specific code, he said.
This code would apply to a motorist who was waved down by an inspection or CHP officer to enter and willfully chose to avoid the inspection.
He said, the code was not created to target motorists who “unknowingly” miss the inspection station by going another route.
Risso said when this idea came to light about two years ago, it looked like a potential solution.
“The idea was gaining traction and looked promising,” he said.
However, once the code was looked at under a microscope, issues arose. The codes are essentially “unenforceable” unless disregarded in plain sight.
The other issue is that if the agricultural codes are enforced, not abiding by the codes isn’t just a traffic infraction for motorists, it’s a misdemeanor.
Risso says this is metaphorically like hitting an ant hill with a bazooka.
Martinez said that navigation app companies won’t abide to the agricultural codes.
“We have informed them of the codes and that they shouldn’t be sending people around the agricultural station,” he said.
Martinez says that they received no response from the app companies, however, he received an informal response from someone from the company that stated they won’t abide because they don’t know where people are coming from and if the agricultural station is a necessary stop.
However, Martinez disagrees and says that the app knows where motorists begin and end.
“It makes no sense,” he said.
Martinez says they have been working to find solutions to this issue.
“We have been fighting this battle,” he said.
One way they tried to mitigate the issue was through signage to lead people back to U.S. 50 and to enter the agricultural station.
“It hasn’t been as effective to the degree which we have hoped,” he said.
While county supervisors could enact an ordinance to force motorists through the inspection station, officials say it would be redundant because it is already a state ordinance and it would then burden the county with the responsibility of enforcing it which would be both costly and time consuming.
Martinez says they are hopeful about the Right Hand Turn Restriction pilot program. He says that after it goes in effect on Memorial Day that they should be getting data soon after to determine if the county should implement a permanent restriction.
Because this restriction would place closures that would apply to all motorists heading westbound from North Upper Truckee, he hopes the navigation app companies will abide.
“Electronic closures would be the simplest way of doing it,” Risso said.
Once the navigation app algorithm’s data show that the route is blocked and motorists aren’t using it, the apps might permanently remove that route.
According to Martinez, the navigation app companies have stated that they will follow regulatory signs that are enforceable.
Martinez said, “We are hopeful that once those signs are placed, they [travel apps] will abide and not send people that direction [through neighborhoods].”
Correction: This article that was previously published stated that the turn restrictions will happen on Sundays and Mondays from May through October, however it was corrected to say the restriction will happen on Sundays and holidays.
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