TRPA sides with cars

Folks in Kings Beach wanted to make things more pedestrian and bicycle friendly, less car friendly

There’s both a literal and figurative tug of war going on over this stretch of highway in Kings Beach. Some want it to stay four lanes, others want it shrunk.

There’s both a literal and figurative tug of war going on over this stretch of highway in Kings Beach. Some want it to stay four lanes, others want it shrunk.

Photo By D. Brian Burghart

Some King Beachers call it the “main street” plan, an inventive proposal to reverse years of supposed “progress” to try a new way.

Not many areas are as dependent on one highway as is Lake Tahoe. In most communities around the lake, the highway (variously designated 50, 89, and 28) is the one way in and the one way out, and as a result serves as the de facto main street. The businesses that line it have dominant voices in their towns, which has often meant that the interests of the tourists have been the highest priority. In Kings Beach, the highway is four lanes wide and accident prone. The 1.1 mile stretch of highway at issue has a vehicle/pedestrian accident rate triple the state average and twice the fatality average.

For years in Kings Beach, city leaders, ordinary citizens, and the business community have been looking at trying something different. It was part of planning something called the Commercial Core Improvement Project.

Many of the players want to try tailoring the main street to local needs instead of tourism. They argue that past changes—notably widening of the highway—were confused with progress. “If there is a wide lane and wider shoulders,” said one of the experts brought in during planning, “the cars see that as a signal to go faster.” Always before, wider lanes were portrayed as improvement.

When premises like that were questioned, it led to further questioning. Over a period of years, new ideas of how to grow—or progress—became fodder for community discussions. Why is a main street tailored to cars? Why not build it around mass transit, bicycles—pedestrians?

Slowly, the focus landed on those four lanes that plow through Kings Beach. A consensus started to form around the idea of narrowing the highway to one lane in and one lane out, with a turn lane in the center. That would narrow it from four to two lanes, with a turn lane to relieve some of the congestion that often caused accidents. There would be a couple of pedestrian-activated crosswalk lights to stop traffic when needed.

Roundabouts were added to the plan, to slow traffic without stopping it. Traffic calmed by the narrower highway and roundabouts would, it was hoped, be more welcoming to bicycles and pedestrians.

Emergency agencies, including police, fire and ambulance, said they could live with the reconfigured lanes and roundabouts. The California Department of Transportation, on the other hand, has been sharply critical of the plan.

Some Kings Beach businesspeople argued that the highway wasn’t just the town’s road, it was a highway that encircled the lake. Obstructing it impeded the tourists. But that put the businesspeople in the position of arguing that the highway should be used to speed tourists out of town, an awkward stance to defend. And there were a number of instances of businesspeople who initially opposed the two lane plan but who changed their minds—and even a couple of instances of businesspeople who had backed the original widening of the highway to four lanes and now supported shrinking it back to two.

There is an assumption by Kings Beach supporters of the changes that reducing highway access will reduce traffic, and this viewpoint has some scholarly support. There’s a factor in highway and street planning called generated traffic. Essentially, it means that as more roads are built, more people will drive more.

Jim Galloway

As one Canadian study put it, “Congestion reaches a point at which it constrains further growth in peak-period trips. If road capacity increases, the number of peak-period trips also increases until congestion again limits further traffic growth. … Generated traffic consists of diverted traffic (trips shifted in time, route and destination), and induced vehicle travel (shifts from other modes, longer trips and new vehicle trips). Research indicates that generated traffic often fills a significant portion of capacity added to congested urban road.”

What is less clear is whether, once new roads are already in place, removing them then decreases traffic. There has been far less study of this question because it is so unusual to remove existing roads. What the people of Kings Beach want to try is truly innovative.

On the other hand, there is also little evidence to support the claim of some critics of the King Beach plan that drivers encountering congestion would turn to side streets. “I don’t understand how we are reducing pedestrian accidents when we are diverting traffic onto back roads without any sidewalks,” Placer County Supervisor Bruce Kranz has written. But Lake Tahoe neighborhoods above the highway have long had a reputation among local tourists, particularly repeat visitors from nearby areas like Reno and Sacramento, as briar patches of roads that go nowhere, form closed loops, end in cul de sacs or dead ends, lead to frustration and inevitably end up back on the same lake highway. For that tourist segment, at least, turning off the highway would make little sense because there are so few through roads in lake neighborhoods.

It’s not quite clear why this happened, but the decision on the Kings Beach plan went before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a bi-state planning agency, before it was voted on by the Placer County Board of Supervisors ("Why they did it this way is beyond me,” said one TRPA member). And the TRPA rejected it on a 7-6 vote at its June 25 meeting.

One member of the TRPA said it appeared to him that the audience was “about half and half” on the proposal. But Placer County officials said that, whatever the makeup of the audience, there was no such even split in the community. They estimated support for the highway plan at upwards of three-fourths of the community. “My opinion is that about 80 percent are in favor of three lanes,” said Supervisor Rocky Rockholm. But the Placer supervisors were not on the record voting for the proposal.

Rejection of the plan by the TRPA sent its supporters into a tailspin. The plan could not be resubmitted again for a year and in the meantime the county would have to offer an alternative which would probably have to include four lanes. People who had invested years in building a consensus—and succeeded—were demoralized. “We felt disrespected,” said one.

The TRPA decision dismayed many at the lake outside Kings Beach who regard the agency principally as a protector of the environment. Its decision to oppose a plan that offered environmental benefits came as a surprise. Washoe County Commissioner Jim Galloway, a member of TRPA and one of the “no” votes, says the environment was exactly why he voted as he did, because he expects mammoth traffic delays because of the plan: “It could be up to a million gallons of gasoline per year extra consumed because of these delays,” Galloway said. He also said the communities in other parts of the lake would be negatively affected. “I have an obligation to all the people at the lake.”

“The current problem is the town receives all the negative aspects of traffic—speeding, unsafe street crossings, air pollution and noise—without receiving many of the positives—visitors stopping their cars to spend their money downtown,” observed the Sierra Sun’s editorial writers.

In spite of TRPA killing the plan, the Placer County Board of Supervisors went ahead and voted on it a month later, on July 22. It supported the two lanes and roundabout on a 4-1 vote.

Armed with that vote, supporters convinced the TRPA to reconsider its vote, which it will do later this year. And the next vote will not take place with TRPA members in the dark about sentiment in the Placer Board.

The Placer supervisors at their meeting had been in no mood to be trifled with. The one member of the Placer supervisors voting against the plan was Bruce Kranz, who was also the county’s delegate on the TRPA governing board. And before the county meeting ended he said he had every intention of voting against the plan when it came before the bi-state agency, instead of representing the board’s consensus.

His four colleagues then decided to jerk him off the TRPA and send his alternate, Larry Evison, to represent the county board. (Galloway was the only vote against reconsideration, and he cited this Placer “hardball” tactic in explaining his vote.) That alone provides the vote needed to get the change adopted if other votes stay the same.