Nevada's $1.3 billion in road funds has Tahoe ferry money too

Lake Tahoe planners will take a step back in time to help solve modern traffic problems that choke narrow roads around the scenic mountain lake.

Two high-speed ferry boats will carry summer tourists across the 21-mile-long lake on the California-Nevada border and haul snow skiers and residents in snowy winter months when the roads are hard - at times impossible - to keep clear.

Congress approved $8 million for the ferry boats out of a nearly $300 billion national transportation bill. The idea came from the Tahoe Metropolitan Planning Organization, whose board members also sit on the bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Agency governing board.

"Waterborne transit on Tahoe has a storied history on the lake," says Nick Haven, chief transportation planner for the regional planning agency. "We'd really be getting back to our roots in providing quality transportation services."

"It would reduce dependency on private automobiles," he said. "Three-quarters or more of the highway around the lake is only two-lane, and it really backs up."

Boats were once the most dependable way to transport people and supplies around the 193-square-mile lake that is known for cobalt blue color and striking clarity.

But the largest of the old vessels, the 169-foot SS Tahoe that launched in 1896, became too costly to operate and was scuttled 65 years ago.

Now tour boats and pleasure craft ply the lake. But there are no large boats to carry scores of passengers from one end of the lake to the other in about the same time it takes to drive a car - 45 minutes to an hour - and all for a low fare.

"This would serve a transportation need while providing some of the most beautiful views in the world," Haven said. "It's really just building on the legacy of water transportation on the lake, utilizing it as the transportation asset it once was."

Tentative plans call for two high-speed, low-wake ferries that could each haul up to 200 people. The ferries would be propelled by low-emission engines that run on natural gas or other alternative fuel, as well as solar-generated electricity.

Docks and parking areas would be built over the next two to three years, and the boats could end up being run by private contractors.

The ferry boat project takes up just three lines in a 1,752-page bill crammed with transportation projects for all states, including $4 million to improve bus service in the Lake Tahoe area.

State Transportation Director Jeff Fontaine said the ferryboats aren't the only unusual projects in Nevada funded by the federal transportation bill. He noted there's also $10 million to help reconstruct the historic Virginia & Truckee Railroad.

The rail line was built in 1869 during the heyday of northern Nevada's Comstock Lode. It was abandoned in 1938, long after the major mines had played out. Reconstruction could total $25 million, but advocates say the V&T will be a huge tourism attraction.

Fontaine also said $15 million in the bill could help pay for a cover and plaza over the train trench under construction through downtown Reno.

There's also $50 million for a Hoover Dam bypass bridge project being built in southern Nevada and $45 million for a magnetic levitation train to connect Las Vegas to Primm, the first step in a planned high-speed rail route to Los Angeles.

In all, Fontaine said Nevada should get an average of $259 million a year over several years - about 30 percent more than under previous bills. Also, there's $325 million for other projects, for a total of about $1.6 billion.

"What we got is very good and certainly reflects the hard work and initiative of our congressional delegation," Fontaine said. "It's very good considering that there are a number of states that got much less" than a 30 percent increase.

Nevada has two members on the House Transportation Committee - Democrat Shelley Berkley and Republican Jon Porter - which gave the state an advantage in the allocation scramble.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., a member of the Appropriations Committee, also helped to get money for the state, as did Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.


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