One Tahoe transportation plan – key decisions yet to be made

Transportation consultant recommends user fees

Lake Tahoe California, 1908, gelatin silver print - unknown photographer - Library of Congress

Imagine Lake Tahoe in the year 2040 when, according to plan, a person or family will be able to visit Lake Tahoe and leave their car at home. 

Tourists, commuters, and locals of the future will have at their disposal a multi-faceted and inter-connected public transport system that, ideally, takes them and their gear where they want to go and when they want to go there in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. 

Imagine a trolley, expanded bike and walking paths and a high-speed ferry from South Lake Tahoe to Tahoe City.

What’s lacking is money.

At last week’s South Lake Tahoe City Council meeting, transportation and planning consultant Derek Morse shared the recommendations he recently made to the Tahoe Transportation District.   

Morse said the transportation district hired him to define the needs, revenues and shortfalls in terms of transportation for the basin. Morse said he and cooperating stakeholders did extensive outreach in developing his recommendations.

Over the 23-year period, as laid out in the latest regional transportation plan, Morse identified $3.1 billion in transportation funding needs. The agency currently has about half the money, $1.58 billion. Much of it is earmarked for particular uses.

Future sources of revenue need to be unencumbered and able to be spent on any cost, operation or infrastructure.

Operations and maintenance account for 62 percent of the spending, though Morse was clear to say that these numbers are subject to change as the transportation plan is updated.

The two-fold problem is: roughly 55,000 residents live in the scenic basin; some 10 million vehicles visit the lake every year. 

Visitors drive a $5 billion annual economy, but the current level of automobile congestion and associated impacts degrade the natural beauty and tranquility that originally enticed them to visit.

Day trippers headed to the beach or trail in automobiles bring with them litter and a variety of environmental impacts and often do not leave any money behind. Forty-two percent of those day trippers do not spend the night.

A System of User Fees

According to Morse, when accounting for the sources of the existing funding of $1.58 billion over the next 23 years, 95 percent of that money comes from basin residents and 5 percent comes from visitors.

The need to raise money from visitors for expanded transportation systems is patent. Morse recommended a system of user fees.

“We recommended that any new mechanisms that we look at are the transportation user fees, and I say that fees as opposed to taxes. I think a good example for most people are your sewer and water fees. You know, you pay a fee, you get a service, that type of thing. 

“It’s not like a tax. These are the most equitable, effective and efficient types of mechanisms, given the mix that you have of residents and non residents and commuters and people that don’t commute. And people that come in only for the day and people that have extended visits. This is a much better mechanism to deal with that mix,” Morse said to council members via Zoom.

“Fees also provide you full transparency,” Morse continued. “You don’t set fee rates arbitrarily. They’re set based upon need, and this would be driven in our proposal by your regional transportation plan. You know what you need to do, you know what it costs, you know what other money you’ll be getting, and you know what gap you have to make up, and that will help you then set your fees for the upcoming future.”

Morse offered a set of hypothetical transportation user fees as examples.

Nonresidents:

Non-resident, non-commuter – $4.10 a day

Non-resident commuter (1 or more persons) $1.06 a day

Residents:

Resident households – $7.00 a month

Resident businesses based on trip generation of land use – average $71 a month

Morse was clear that these are merely hypothetical fee values. He acknowledged that many decisions regarding how to fund transportation around the lake have yet to be made but he did recommend accomplishing certain project benchmarks by the end of October. 

According to Morse, meeting these deadlines do not enact fees but prepares the city and basin to be ready when authorization is granted, should it be granted.

Morse recommends that by the end of October, the city and the larger project need concurrence on the transportation user fee mechanism, or some funding plan. Then they need to issue direction to pursue the enabling legislation in both state legislatures to amend Article IX of the Bi-state Compact to levy user fees. 

The legislatures in California and Nevada would have to enact legislation to revise the Tahoe Bi-state Compact to enable the collection of transportation user fees. Following the upcoming elections, the next 120-day, biennial Nevada legislative session gets underway in February of 2021.

The Tahoe Transportation District is currently seeking public comment on the plan.

Council Member Cody Bass is the City Council’s representative on the Tahoe Transportation District’s Board of Directors. During last week’s meeting, Bass emphasized that Morse’s presentation was purely informational and that the City Council was not, at present, going to take any action regarding the transportation plan.

Council Member Bass wanted to make sure citizen understood that the TTD has not proposed charging locals a fee to use the roads.

“This is recommendations that we’re seeing from a consultant,” Bass said during last week’s meeting. “This hasn’t been voted on by the board of TTD, hasn’t been agreed upon by the board of TTD, never have the board of TTD said that we’re going to charge locals a fee or any of those dynamics. 

“And at this point really, with the board of TTD is that it did slow down with regards to COVID and our Nevada commissioners saying that there was really no appetite in the Nevada Legislature to bring this forward in this session (the upcoming biennial 2021 session). 

“And so it’s definitely going to slow down at this point. And in my opinion, I think that’s good,” Bass continued. “I do believe that we have this type of a shortfall in our transportation funding needs and we do need to address it. There’s no doubt to that. 

“We do need to be able to capture funding from day trippers and we should use technology that can make these things happen … I think that the structure of where the money is going to go, how it’s going to be dispersed, there’s huge conversations that still have to be sorted out before any of these decisions are made.”

How will the decisions be made?

Council Member Devin Middlebrook asked about the venues for finding consensus on the plan. Tahoe Transportation District (TTD) District Manager Carl Hasty said building consensus for funding the transportation future of the basin will be a central challenge and occur in many municipal venues.

“There are a number of processes and places for this decision and information to be had. And that’s part of the challenge for anything at Tahoe because we always have these parallel things. So there’s clearly a discussion that’s going on within the TTD board. There’s also this bi-state process that’s going on in parallel with the two administrations, and then there’s each local jurisdiction, and business groups, etc. 

“So that really is going to be the trick, is how do you aggregate all of that into everyone going forward … I think that is our single biggest challenge of arriving at consensus is being able to pull all that together.”

Council Member Bass acknowledged that there is a need to raise more money for transportation but that much more public deliberation is needed to address the equity of a system that charges a fee to use roads.

“There’s a lot of details here to work out,” Bass said. “I think that we can get to somewhere where this is how we’re going to make these great transportation systems where people can come to Tahoe and be dependent on our transit systems and come here without a vehicle. And we can start to address some of these issues in the long term, and it takes funding, and so at a point, I can get behind it from where it’s presented today, though, I just want to be clear that these are recommendations. They have a long way to go.”


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media reporter. Support his work.