Tahoe Traffic and Squaw Valley–When you are in a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging.

I knew traffic would be bad.

A month of storms had buried Tahoe in historically deep snow and it was Saturday.  Bluebird skies and mild temperatures, not to mention the marketing departments of every ski resort in the region, beckoned one and all to come enjoy the winter wonderland.  I grew up in the Sierra Nevada Foothills and Squaw and Alpine have been my home mountains.  The less generous among you might say I should have known better.

Yet there we were, Saturday January 28 9:35 AM, on Interstate 80, more than a mile from the exit to SR 89 South, the only road to Squaw Valley Ski Resort.  And we weren’t moving, at least not much.

Oh yeah, and all of the parking for both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, where we have season passes, was full.Image Credit: unofficialalpine.com

Squaw notified folks on twitter just after 10am that they were full as well, but friends who arrived before then found themselves out of luck.

Like everyone else, we were a bit frustrated.  We paid for our passes, we woke up (reasonably) early, and we wanted to be on the mountain – not stopped on the interstate.

Unsurprisingly it didn’t get any better when we reached SR 89.

My traffic angst extends beyond that morning , however.  Because, as Staff Attorney for Sierra Watch, I’ve spent countless hours reading thousands of pages of traffic statistics to get a sense of what new development would do to Squaw, to 89, and I-80.

And, however bad traffic was Saturday, it could get much, much worse.

Now would be a good time to let you know that I’m not looking for any sympathy here.  My fiancé and I could have driven up the night before and stayed in Tahoe City, or left my house a few hours earlier, and we would have avoided all of this.  And my work schedule is flexible enough that often I can ride a few hours in the morning and still get in a full work day.

Not everyone is so lucky.  Most people work Monday through Friday, most people don’t have a place they can stay in Tahoe, and lots of these people love to ski.  That’s why weekends and holidays have always, and always will be, busy.  And that hits others harder than me.

Like these people.

I eventually made it to Tahoe City two hours later after being waved away from both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows by signs and employees warning me that there was no room at the inn.  From there we drove another 20 minutes to Diamond Peak and took advantage of their $40 “bring your other pass” deal.  Ended up with some decent lemonade from all of those lemons.

Looking south from Diamond Peak

It’s true, real solutions to Tahoe traffic are complex and will require significant time and money.  And I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I have all of the answers.

But I do know that these solutions are worth pursuing because Tahoe’s traffic woes don’t just diminish the Tahoe experience (and that would be bad enough).  They also threaten our safety by making it impossible for fire, ambulance, and law enforcement to respond promptly in the case of emergencies, and they harm the clarity of the Lake itself as tailpipe emissions and road sediments cloud the water.

It’s blindingly obvious that the first step in solving this problem is to stop making it worse.  Unfortunately, that’s precisely what KSL Capital Partners recently got permission from Placer County to do, as even the County’s optimistic analysis of their plan for a 90,000 square foot indoor water park and acres of high rise condo hotels—1493  bedrooms in total—would add more than 3,000 vehicle trips on peak days.

At Sierra Watch we are working hard to overturn these irresponsible approvals, filing two lawsuits in the last two months making the case that they are also illegal.  And our legal arguments are strong.

One of our pending lawsuits attacks the quality of Placer County’s state mandated environmental analyses.  In our legal filings we point out, among numerous other deficiencies, that the County doesn’t accurately portray how bad traffic already is, a fatal flaw according to state law that requires analyses to compare impacts to baseline conditions.

That fraudulent analysis claims that traffic on State Route 89 really isn’t that bad right now with average speeds of 46 mph and drive times of 13 minutes from Truckee to Squaw Valley Road during the busiest Saturday mornings of the year.

Even though everyone who lives in the area or skis at Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows already knows that this is nonsense, I figured Saturday was a good opportunity for some field research.  My travel time: 1 hour 6 minutes and 24 seconds.  That is more than five times the travel time Placer County’s description of baseline conditions.

That same pending lawsuit attacks Placer County’s equally ridiculous claim that “In the proposed project situation, trip generation is physically limited by how much parking is provided on-site.”  Don’t worry, we were told, real time information about available parking will make this true.  And that baseless assertion was apparently good enough for both county staff and the majority of the Board of Supervisors.

I think it would have been a harder sell to the nearly 9,000[i] people stuck in the 19 miles of gridlock that stretched from the outskirts of Tahoe City and Truckee to both the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows Ski Resorts.  Many, like the mother and son I interviewed, had already driven three hours or more by the time the notifications of no more parking were made.  And the good news is that we are confident KSL and the County are going to have an equally hard time selling it to a judge.

We don’t pretend to have an easy answer for Tahoe’s traffic woes, but when you are in a hole the first thing you should do is stop digging.  This means that would be developers and local governments alike need to stop pretending that it’s not so bad and that massive new developments won’t make it worse.

And if they won’t, Sierra Watch will continue to hold them accountable.

If you’d like to contribute to our legal action fund you can do so here:  https://secure.3rdsectorhost.com/sierrawatc/

If you want to talk or have questions you can contact me at 530 265 2849 x 203 or via email at isilverman@sierrawatch.org.

[i](19 miles of roadway including: a lane of I-80 from the outskirts of Truckee to SR 89 S exit, SR 89 from I-80 to Squaw Valley Road, Squaw Valley Road to Ski Resort, SR 89 from Squaw Valley Road and 89 to Alpine Meadows Road and SR 89, Alpine Meadows Road to the Ski Resort, and SR 89 from SR 89 and Alpine Meadows Road for 2 miles toward Tahoe City) X (5,280)] / [16.5 (length of average passenger vehicle)+6(average following distance in gridlock)] X [2.5 (average number of people per car)]= 8,917.33