The Nevada Department of Transportation, after having been met with vocal community resistance, has removed the “road diet” portion of the U.S. 50 Tahoe East Shore Corridor Management plan.
NDOT said they will continue to seek possibilities that provide solutions as multifaceted as the problems they aim to solve.
The problems identified through NDOT’s analysis included difficulty turning in/out of side streets and driveways, bike and pedestrian safety, on-highway parking and speeding. The proposed solutions didn’t go over well with the community it would impact and protests led to an organized grassroots group set on being heard.
A coalition of residents and neighbors, unified by their shared abhorrence, formed TESA, the Tahoe East Shore Alliance. Armed with road and transportation experts, they set out to verify NDOT’s facts and challenge their proposal.
“NDOT’s plan to remove two of four lanes of Hwy 50’s east shore corridor was first rolled out in 2017,” TESA’s website states when residents came out to protest six years ago, “NDOT retreated until returning in ’22 they returned with a similar plan to reduce large sections of the 13-mile corridor from Stateline to Spooner Summit to two lanes with a center turning lane, sometimes referred to as a suicide lane for the dangers posed by drivers misusing the lane to circumvent traffic gridlock. In traffic vernacular, this is called a ‘road diet.'”
NDOT estimated 7 million trips pass through the corridor annually, the opinion that safety is at the top of priorities is a fact that unites more than it divides but how to achieve said safety is a source of debate and has been since this summer.
The Tahoe Regional Planning agency calls the CMP changes “fundamental cornerstones of transportation changes” that need to happen for safety.
NDOT describes the US 50 CMP as “an integrated, multi-modal transportation study with the purpose of balancing mobility and safety enhancements with the unique range of other corridor interests through an ongoing collaboration among stakeholders”.
“We want safety as much as anyone,” said Brett Tibbitts, Founder, TESA, who added ” Caldor was a wake-up call to all of us. The evacuation was chaotic despite a 4-lane US 50. Imagine that evacuation scenario with only two lanes.”
Asserting the road diet would lead South Lake Tahoe into a Lahaina destiny, TESA started making waves at NDOT Board of director meetings, demanding the attention of officials and they got it.
During the most recent board meeting NDOT delivered findings from a survey and concluded: “As a result of recent lane reductions for construction and utility work observations have shown that traffic levels are high enough to back up traffic and result in delays beyond the desired speed reduction. Due to this observation and current traffic levels NDOT will no longer consider lane reductions as a safety strategy is no longer being pursued”.
“When we began this effort to keep US 50 four lanes, It felt a bit like David going up against Goliath,” TESA Tech team member Robert Byren and former Chief Technologist for Raytheon’s Space & Airborne Systems, told the Tribune.
“Road diets were never designed for rural settings, especially on alpine arterial highways. Peak traffic conditions on US 50 regularly exceed maximum thresholds for the use of road diets. Using Federal Highway Administration language, we must conclude that US 50 is not a “good candidate” for a road diet. It’s a non-starter,” Byren added.
Byren poured over information from 17 sources, among them NDOT’s CMP, news articles covering past wildfire devastation, even Caltrans’ investigative findings from the 2018 Paradise fire, to create “The Wildfire Evacuation Dilemma — A South Lake Tahoe Story”. The 16 page document will soon be published detailing a potential reality no one wants.
“We all agree that there can be improvements made,” Stephen Ascuaga, Nevada District 2 Representative, said during the Transportation Board of Directors meeting November 13.
“I appreciate everyone’s efforts,” while expressing gratitude to the multiple agencies and the community for putting their efforts in, Ascuaga noted the complex stretch of highway from Spooner Summit to Stateline presents a “variety of different personalities of a roadway including traffic volume, speeds, surroundings and lane configuration”
Echoing Ascuaga’s comments, Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo, added “there were points given on both sides of the road diet but the path that we are going to go is probably the better path and will probably eliminate 4 hours of public comment”.
Not everyone agrees with detouring from the road diet.
TRPA’s Jeff Cowen told the Tribune, “When we saw the lane reductions go away we really saw a lot of the potential safety benefits go away too”.
“Critical safety concerns remain in certain areas, especially those that were considered for lane reconfigurations. We will work with NDOT to ensure those areas are the focus of early action measures and further study,” Cowen said in a later statement to the Tribune.
“Whenever a road diet is considered you have to look at why,” TESA’s Road Diet expert Randal O’Toole.
60 years ago, in the fall of ’63, construction began on the modern US 50, revealing the 4-lane arterial highway in the spring of ’64.
NDOTs CMP would revert the scenic byway to something more like the original 2-lane roadway of 1962.
O’Toole has provided nationwide analyses of more than one hundred land-use and transportation plans, including plans for national forests, national parks, metropolitan regions, and transit systems, have made him one of the nation’s experts on public land management, urban and regional growth, and transportation.
“What I see in the Tahoe area is a nationwide trend and isn’t any different from what I’m seeing in places like San Francisco, Denver, and Portland”, O’Toole said climate and safety have been used as crutches for policy makers long before climate was an issue.
“During the Camp Fire in 2018, people using a primary evacuation route to leave the area experienced a significant traffic delay because of recent road improvements that reduced roadway capacity” according to a preliminary investigation report by Caltrans Division of Research, Innovation and System Information entitled Traffic Modeling of Potential Emergency Wildfire Evacuation Routes.
“I don’t believe that it really mattered, I don’t think there’s any town in the world prepared with a roadway infrastructure that could evacuate their entire town all at once. They’re just not built to do that,” Former Paradise Mayor Jody Jones said about the catastrophe in Paradise, Nov 2018.
South Lake Tahoe Chief of Police David Stevenson told the Tribune “The pinch point where all the roads connect to 50 at lake parkway is the bigger issue for a future evacuation, similar to Caldor.”
Stevenson added the agencies would, as with any emergency response in the basin, work together to coordinate a solution in the event of an emergency.
“I’m all for NDOT working on ways to make it safer for everyone, but due to our fire and evacuation conditions we can’t afford any reduction in lanes,” Scott Lindgren, Tahoe Douglas Fire Chief, told the Tribune “I absolutely support keeping it four lanes with no restrictions for evacuation safety and general traffic. I also support center turn lanes to help with flow. We definitely have some safety concerns at 50/28, Zephyr Point Conference grounds (dead man’s curve), and by Zephyr Cove Resort. People definitely drive way too fast. Speed and alcohol are big contributors to the safety of our citizens along 50.”
Currently, the only funded projects are: the new traffic signal at Warrior Way, Round Hill Pines entry improvements, and resurfacing of US 50 currently planned for 2025, which could include some early action to improve striping and/or signage.
Mid and long-term improvements will take more time to be constructed with possible implementation over the next five – 20 years depending on funding availability, other state and agency priorities through the One Nevada Transportation Plan.
“NDOT will further evaluate options to improve the existing intersection to make turns safer and easier,” said NDOT spokesperson Meg Ragonese, “Left turns between U.S. 50 and State Route 28 have been a public concern expressed during our corridor management plan public outreach”.
Plans outlined and proposed as part of the U.S. 50 CMP currently show two roundabouts; a roundabout is suggested for the State Route 28/Hwy 50 junction as well as the intersection at Lake Parkway.
Ragonese said the final report will be published in 2024.
View the full plans here: https://www.dot.nv.gov/home/showpublisheddocument/20925/638024808502330000
For questions or comments regarding the U.S. 50 East Shore CMP, please contact Melissa Chandler, NDOT Project Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-888-7170.