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Tahoe railway idea nixed by City Council

Jenifer Ragland

South Lake Tahoe leaders Tuesday night indicated they will travel into the 21st century on rubber tires, not electrical rail.

The City Council endorsed an agreement for a high-tech integrated bus system, but shot down one man’s dream of an electric trolley between the Lake Tahoe Airport and Camp Richardson.

Dick Powers, executive director of the South Shore Transportation Management Association, presented the draft agreement for the Coordinated Transit System. He said it has taken more than a year to nail down the details of the project, but assured city leaders it is solid.

CTS is a satellite-driven transit system, intended to reduce confusion associated with many separate transit choices and conserve state and federal funds. The project is a public-private partnership between local and federal agencies on the South Shore and large businesses, including at least four casinos and Heavenly Ski Resort.

Council members approved the agreement in concept, until Powers can bring back the final draft of the legal document and operating plan. Buying into the idea that a unified transit system will increase ridership and reduce vehicle traffic, city leaders confirmed they are putting their money on CTS.

But the response was not so positive to the presentation made by Gunnar Henrioulle.

If one thing was clear, it was that Henrioulle does not give up easily. Despite being defeated many times before, he remained convinced that his solar-powered fixed guideway idea is the future of South Lake Tahoe.

“I’m an individual who has probably stepped over the bounds that a prudent person should, but I believe a fixed railway will work and I do it out of conviction,” he said.

Unfortunately for Henrioulle, city leaders don’t feel the same way. The general feeling of the council was they had been down that road before and have not changed their minds since.

“This community needs to present a single vision of what we want to accomplish in transit,” said Councilman Kevin Cole. “Frankly, Gunnar, your proposals are muddying that vision. We need to be speaking with one voice, and that does not currently include any sort of fixed rail – and won’t ever include a ground rail with overhead wires.”

Councilwoman Margo Osti agreed, saying the city’s future of transit has already been decided by the community through numerous public hearings on the issue.

“What this community wants, we put into place. If your looking for my approval based on some isolated presentation, I can’t give it to you,” she said.

Going a bit easier on Henrioulle, Councilman Hal Cole said he has looked at the idea with an open mind, but just doesn’t see the practicality in it. He added that if there was going to be a rail system, it would have to go from Stateline through the “Y” intersection to make any sense.

“Going from the airport to Camp Richardson – I just don’t see that as a good investment for anyone,” he said.

Henrioulle for the past decade has been restoring 23 turn-of-the-century trolleys that would be used for his envisioned fixed guideway. His plan is to take passengers landing at the Lake Tahoe Airport to Camp Richardson, where they would step aboard a water taxi to take them to Ski Run Marina or the North Shore. From there, visitors would likely take another form of transit to their final destination.

As of today, there is no commercial service at the airport and no fixed water shuttle program in place on Lake Tahoe.

But even if the other pieces were in place, Mayor Tom Davis argued it is not logical to have first-time visitors to Lake Tahoe have to wait for and transfer to several different types of transit before getting to their hotel.

Without the support of the city, it is not clear whether Henrioulle’s concept will ever take off.

But he is far from giving up.

His plan is to work with Steve Teshara, co-chairman of the Lake Tahoe Transportation and Water Quality Coalition, to make sure whatever Henrioulle does fits into what Teshara and other transportation officials are doing on the South Shore.

“The idea of bringing 100 percent clean transportation – a transit system that can be fueled by solar or geothermal power – is not going to go away and is not going to die,” Henrioulle said Wednesday. “The federal government is anxious to show some serious progress in clean transportation at Lake Tahoe. Any delay only makes it more difficult to install infrastructure and gets farther away from the federal window of opportunity.”

He said the real benefit to installing a rail system from the airport to Camp Richardson is the potential for those tracks to connect with future rails coming from places like Sacramento and San Francisco.

If he can’t convince the “powers that be” on the South Shore, Henrioulle said he will explore options for using his vehicles on the North Shore.


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