A cry for bold solutions: 'Don't visit Tahoe'
To the resounding shock and horror of tourism officials, major international tourism guide Fodor's recently listed Lake Tahoe as one of the top 10 places in the entire world NOT to visit. Tahoe residents - long ignored witnesses to the degradation of the Jewel of the Sierra at the mercy of unfettered tourism - simply nodded their heads. Trash, dusty air, slimy beaches and rocks from polluted runoff… the list goes on and on. And no one really wants to drive to Tahoe to get stuck in what has become Sacramento-like traffic. Without solutions, we are all losers, the lake included.
Reaction to this reality check has ranged from apathy to blame to tourist officials sticking their heads in the sand and issuing appeals to tourists to keep on visiting. The noise is short on solutions. Meanwhile, there are big bold options that have been successful in other iconic tourist areas, and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has the power to implement them for the long-term health of Tahoe, its residents, and the tourism industry.
How do we keep vacation rentals and millions of tourists, and protect the lake? The solution is as boring as better transportation. Decades of automobile-centric transportation policies that may have worked in the past are now detrimental to accessibility and crippling to tourism. Improvements to roads on the north/northeast shore with roundabouts, sidewalks, and bike paths are nice but clearly inadequate.
So what are the bold solutions proven to work in cherished places around the world?
- Replace main roads with light rail that stretches from the north to west side and around to South Lake Tahoe.
- During the summer months, private vehicles are only allowed in the basin for those with residential and/or business passes. A lottery system for vehicles could also be implemented as is done at Denali and Yosemite.
- Install parking garages outside the basin and provide transit from those garages to points on the lake.
- Install a protected ski/bike path all the way around the lake, and get it cleared before roads are plowed.
Imagine the tourist buzz that would be created by a Lake Tahoe that you can easily visit anytime with a peaceful, hassle-free train ride, or when you have literally won the lottery to be able to drive around it. Restricting summer traffic and lifting the restrictions in the winter could boost winter visits.
No, these are not fully baked ideas, but that is where you come in. It is up to TRPA and transportation officials to fully bake these proposals with the support of the public. Though these ideas are unique in the U.S., the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance believes they will be respected, championed, and appreciated by people both here and around the world who will applaud efforts to preserve the Jewel of the Sierra.
Plans being considered right now in Nevada are not encouraging. The just-issued recommendations from the Nevada Sustainability Transportation Commission are short-sighted, trying to solve traffic problems by raising vehicle fees. That won't work for high traffic areas like Tahoe. They are missing the boat. However, one of the recommendations is long-term: the creation of a commission to study land use.
Such a commission could ask if ever-expanding vehicle fees to pay for more freeways and parking lots the best use of taxpayer funds and public space?
Now is the time to ask these important questions and fund are available to make big change.
Federal ARPA funding is available to implement bold solutions instead of perpetuating the problems that have led us to where we are today.. We should seize the moment, join much of the rest of the conservation-conscious world and set an example for the rest of the U.S. when it comes to sustainable transportation. The question is whether our transportation officials will get on board — or whether they will keep plowing ahead with the old short-sighted methods that have led us to where we are today.
Lake Tahoe has a strong coalition of stewards from all walks of life, and we are confident that we can achieve real change together. There is actual momentum right now to expand rail service to Tahoe. Tell members of the TRPA that fixing Tahoe's tourist problem starts with the transportation recommendations above.
Ky Plaskon is the president of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, BikeWashoe.org