Tahoe time – it’s something locals know all about. Usually it’s in reference to people arriving late and events not starting on time. It could also be a definition for the delayed implementation of infrastructure projects.
When the Tahoe Metropolitan Planning Organization, an arm of TRPA, rolled out its plan for the future for transportation a Lake Tahoe News story dated Nov. 4, 2011, said, “[TMPO s]taff is working on the premise of complete streets being the No. 1 policy goal.”
That same story said, “The three programs [the TMPO] is likely to pursue are: reducing employee trips via shuttles or flexible scheduling, real time traveler information via electronic signs, and parking management where entities may share asphalt.” It’s nearly eight years later and what accomplishments have occurred? Caltrans has some signs on highways that on occasion give travel times. Shuttles – none. Shared parking – nope.
And those complete streets? Well, depends where you look. The city of South Lake Tahoe with the aid of state and federal grants is making the 0.6-mile Sierra Boulevard a complete street, which includes curbs, gutters and sidewalks. When done it will also have bike lanes and better parking. This project has a price tag of more than $5 million. State and federal grants are paying the bulk of it because the city was able to demonstrate the extras beyond asphalt will help with erosion, and reduce greenhouse emissions and congestion.
The next complete street in the city limits could be Tahoe Keys Boulevard, where right-of-way is not an issue and utilities are already underground. Grant funding would be needed.
The streets in the Gardner Mountain area that are being torn apart and completely rebuilt right now are not being transformed into complete streets even though the road is being taken down to dirt. This is not a routine overlay project.
“That was the plan if we had the money,” former South Lake Tahoe Mayor/Councilman Tom Davis said of council policy being that when a street would be completely redone — taken down to dirt like what is happening in Gardner Mountain — that it would become a complete street with curb and gutters, not just pavement. The current mayor didn’t respond to questions.
Former City Manager Nancy Kerry said, “Yes, the goal was to make sure they were all complete streets. And there’s really no better time to do that than when they get it down to dirt. They will never have that opportunity again until the next time, which obviously could be 15-20 years, maybe longer.”
Money. That’s the stumbling block when it comes to doing more than asphalt, according to current staff.
“Adding curb and gutter to a project would result in considerably more complication with funding and environmental permitting,” Stan Hill, with the city’s Public Works Department, explained. “The addition of new curbs and gutters on streets that don’t currently have curbs and gutters would most likely require construction of drainage inlets to collect the surface water from the streets, a conveyance system to route the stormwater runoff to a treatment facility and outfall, the stormwater treatment facility to treat the stormwater, and significant environmental permitting. The city’s (memorandum of understanding) with environmental agencies allows pavement replacement as a maintenance activity with no required environmental permitting. Adding curb and gutter to a project would result in considerably more complication with funding and environmental permitting.”
Hill, who is filling in for the department director while he is on vacation, went on to say, “There is discussion within the city’s General Plan stating, ‘the city shall seek to develop or upgrade all state highways, arterials, and collectors as complete streets that accommodate all travel modes.’ There are three defined collector rated streets within the Gardner Mountain area – 10th Street, 13th Street and most of Julie Lane. However, the current paving project in the Gardner Mountain area is a pavement maintenance project, not a complete streets project. Complete streets projects will require specific direction from the City Council and are much more complicated than pavement surface replacement work.”
Complete streets also require the right-of-way to put in the added infrastructure, especially sidewalks. If it’s not there, it means getting private property owners to bequeath the land or the city to buy it.
Still, the work being done on Gardner Mountain is a bit complicated and much more than a normal overlay.
A machine pulverized the roads down to about 8 inches. The crushed road and subsoil were mixed together to create a base. Those affiliated with the project said this is a good strategy environmentally to not truck out all of the old stuff and to be able to reuse it. The dirt mixture was then compacted with heavy roller machines to create a substantive base.
This is the same approach that was taken with Al Tahoe Boulevard several years ago.
The benefit is the road should last longer than if only an overlay were used.
As has been pointed out at countless council meetings, a big problem with South Tahoe roads is that they were built on dirt with no base. That’s why the pulverization technique was used. Creating a base came the norm in the 1980s.
While the new asphalt in the Gardner Mountain looks pretty, it’s hard to know if drainage will be improved. City officials say even on a project like this one, known problems could be fixed by changing the slope of the road, carving out a roadside path or putting in a ditch for water. It’s not obvious any of those ideas have been implemented.
Not every street in Gardner Mountain will be done this season. The city’s approach is to replace the streets that are failing the worst and proceed from there. Also, there is a coordinated effort to work with the utility companies so roads are torn up once. Southwest Gas has already replaced the steel gas mains on the streets being worked on in 2019.
“Southwest Gas has not completed the gas main and service line replacements on the section of 13th Street that was not included in the 2019 Road Rehabilitation Project area. At some point following the future completion of the Southwest Gas work on 13th Street (west of Julie Lane), Public Works will schedule pavement reconstruction of the remaining section of 13th Street,” Hill said. No date was given when the rest of the 13th or others in the neighborhood will be done.
This means the lower part of 13th is now a skateboarder’s dream, while the upper part remains so bad it’s even jarring on a mountain bike.
South Lake Tahoe has a haphazard approach to maintaining its roads. There is no dedicated fund for roads even though most people would say it’s a basic need for locals and tourists. In 2016, voters said no to raising the sales tax from 7.25 percent to 7.75 percent because it was to go to the General Fund and would not be dedicated for roads.
While nearly every council member (current and former) talks a good game about wanting to improve the dilapidated pavement, reality is another story. This fiscal year, which will come to a close on Sept. 30, the city budgeted $1.95 million for roads. The money came from excess reserves in the General Fund. That is not what one would call a reliable source of income. Another $362,000 came from the state SB1 gas tax.
The 2019-20 budget, which the City Council is slated to approve on Sept. 17, includes about $4.3 million for the street overlay program. At most, that will pay for 5 miles of road. The actual roads to be worked on won’t be decided until the budget is signed. It’s possible, though, with the Southwest Gas project on the books in the Tahoe Valley area for 2020, that the city will piggyback there when the road is torn up.
City officials say if complete streets were put in everywhere, repaving would come to a screeching halt because the cash would be gone. Privately, city officials say complete streets on all roads will never happen. The money isn’t likely to ever be there, especially with transient occupancy tax money (one of the three main revenue sources for the city) about to take a drastic hit because of the vacation home rental policy voters approved in November 2018. Roads and so much more will be even more neglected.