Periodic talk of building all of U.S. 50 to freeway standards between Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe probably has aroused more environmental controversy than any other California highway proposal since the suggestion that U.S. 101 ought to be routed through the heart of one of the state's most majestic redwood groves in Humboldt County. The Highway 50 issue has been raised by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, which says that a variety of forces are at work once again to improve U.S. 50 either to a full four-lane expressway or to a freeway.
Tom Martens, the league's executive director, writes in the current issue of the league's newsletter: "Freewaying Highway 50 will be the biggest environmentally damaging thing to happento Lake Tahoe since the casinos were built." True. The South Shore area simply cannot handle any more auto traffic and accompanying air pollution than it now suffers on busy summer days and during the winter ski season.
Not only that, but such highway expansion probably would destroy what now is one of the state's most scenic routes through the canyon of the South Fork of the American River east of Sacramento and Placerville and over Echo Summit before the road winds down into the upper Truckee River Valley and the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.
The pressure, Martens said, comes from the gambling casinos in Nevada, just across the state line from the city of South Lake Tahoe, from some business interests in South Lake Tahoe, including the Heavenly Valley ski area, and others. An unidentified California Transportation Department official is quoted as promising to seek increased funding for Highway 50. A member of the South Lake Tahoe City Council has promised to work for a Highway 50 bypass through the city, which stretches almost the full distance of the South Shore. And Heavenly Valley officials are attempting to get Caltrans to build a double-deck snowshed for the road over Echo Summit where it often is closed during heavy storms because of avalanches.
But, at the same time, Caltrans is reported to be considering selling its freeway right-of-way through the South Shore area because of the high cost of building the route through environmentally sensitive wetlands.
Caltrans, in fact, says that there is no plan at the moment to finish U.S. 50 to freeway or express way standards. For one reason, there is no money for such a project, and there is not likely to be in the foreseeable future. Efforts will be made to eliminate some of the most dangerous portions of U.S. 50 in the canyon through construction of passing lanes where the topography allows it.The relocation of one nine-mile stretch has been studied. Still, one Caltrans document envisions the completion of a conventional four-lane route over the next 20 to 30 years.
The agency is considering eliminating the free way plan at the lake itself because of the cost and because of environmental opposition, Caltrans officials said. Caltrans could do nothing without the approval of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, the City of South Lake Tahoe and other groups. Clearly some steps are needed to alleviate the traffic congestion at South Lake Tahoe, but a freeway is not the answer.