The Backbone to Envision a New Future for the South Shore

By Joanne S. Marchetta

Time magazine once described Highway 50 as the “Backbone of America.” That means that we have an iconic piece of Americana running right through the middle of the South Shore here at Lake Tahoe. In the days before modern interstate highways crisscrossed the country, Highway 50 was a coast to coast connector, a ribbon of asphalt and concrete that threaded and stitched together the continental United States.  Stretching from Ocean City, Maryland, to California’s capital in Sacramento, U.S. Highway 50 spans some three thousand miles.

One of the longest roads in the nation, Highway 50, covers some spectacular ground and provides access to amazing sites. To travel along the highway is to discover the American experience firsthand—from ground level—at a pace and scale where one can appreciate the small towns and communities that pop up along the route while feeling the diversity of a great nation.

You most likely know about the plans here on the south shore to relocate and revitalize a 1.1 mile stretch of this historic highway. Plans call for rerouting Highway 50 in South Lake Tahoe and Stateline behind the casino core, turning what is now a highway into a quieter and less trafficked street. This new main street will greet locals and visitors with wider sidewalks, more open green spaces, landscaped islands, and fewer trucks and cars.

While there are concerns about what’s colloquially called the loop road project, there are many folks who support this revitalization plan. TRPA believes that this is more than a mere road project – rather, it’s a  renaissance project that can transform our community for the better. The project will build upon the improvements of the Heavenly Gondola and Village. And in the end, provide a wonderful sense of place for the community and visitors to gather.

If you spend an evening strolling down the sidewalks from the casino core through the Heavenly Village, you’ll notice several things. The sidewalks and the outdoor seating areas are bustling with people enjoying themselves. But the hum of conversations and laughter is drowned out by the din of passing big rigs, delivery trucks, and the vast number of drivers making fast tracks from one side of town to the other. Routing Highway 50 behind the casinos eliminates multiple stoplights for pass-through drivers and moves noisy traffic that interferes with the walkability of our town center.

We can look to many other places that have chosen their community over a road. Carson City is a prime example. Taking in the beauty of Nevada’s Capitol and grounds or having dinner at one of Carson’s new restaurants is a much more enjoyable experience today than it was a few years ago when a 4-lane highway ran through the town center.

Think of what we’ve already improved on the south shore. Twenty years ago, this stretch of Highway 50 through Stateline was little more than a rundown row of dilapidated motels — the world’s smallest Taco Bell — and scores of T-shirt shops. Today the Heavenly Village is a major draw for locals and visitors and a downtown shopping destination generating revenue for city coffers. The Heavenly Gondola now offers walk-up access to the mountain without skiers and boarders needing to drive up to the mountain by car.

While there is still a remnant of the Great Recession’s “hole in the ground,” failure provides opportunities. The community is regrouping now to imagine a thriving main street corridor with links to the beach and the Van Sickle bi-state park.

Before any of this can happen—before a single shovel of dirt is turned to divert the highway—109 replacement units of affordable housing will be constructed for those uprooted by the new Highway 50 alignment. These will be deed-restricted, modern, energy-efficient, safe housing units that will replace the aging housing infrastructure that exists today.

For those living in the Rocky Point neighborhood, we understand that this is a difficult and emotional proposition. Our partners in this process know that the removal of existing housing can never be taken lightly. That’s why TRPA, the Tahoe Transportation District, and the City of South Lake Tahoe have held and will continue to hold multiple public outreach meetings. We are listening, and including the voices of those most affected, and doing everything we can to answer concerns.

Partners will be offering packages, with many years of rental relocation assistance, when the time comes for affected residents to move. On November 20, TRPA will host another open house at the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. This third stakeholder meeting will allow residents to review the main street plan, and let the public have a say in how the final design will look.

We’re committed to seeing infrastructure improvements in the Rocky Point neighborhood like sidewalks, lighting, and community parks where kids can gather and safely play. TRPA conditioned these improvements in the permit for the Highway 50 project.

Like all projects of this magnitude, it will require us to partner and collaborate every step along the way. And like all the important issues we’ve tackled during our recent history, we’ll go on this journey together. When all is said and done many years from now, let’s hope we transform our 1.1 mile of America’s historic connector highway into something we can all celebrate that makes Tahoe proud.


Joanne S. Marchetta is the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.