Last Sunday's Disastrous Traffic Event: What Happened?
Last Sunday's disastrous traffic event, one that saw approximately 80,000 departing motorists stuck on the roads in and around Truckee for hours, has left many people talking and asking questions. Untimely would be the word to describe the unfortunate sequence of events which took place on Sunday, with a mass exodus of westbound travelers departing the town of Truckee just as an aggressive winter storm hit.
I-80 had been shut for several hours by the time the cars began to stack up on the highway. This resulted in traffic backing up on I-80 for miles, all the way back into downtown Truckee without movement. Why were they not alerted? How was this crisis not averted?
To shed some light on what took place and to answer some of the questions that have been raised in the aftermath, Truckee Police Chief Robert Leftwich released a statement this morning. Here is an excerpt:
A Message From the Chief Leftwich
January 11, 2019
Now that the Christmas and New Year’s weeks are behind us, I wanted to provide some observations and insights about the gridlock that we experienced on Sunday, January 6th. As we all know, weather-related gridlock is not a new challenge for Truckee and at some level, these incidents have occurred for decades. With that being said, the sheer number of vehicles and the timing with the storm that closed westbound I-80 on Sunday created a more significant event than we have seen in a long time. As with any significant incident, Town staff has spent a great deal of time debriefing, discussing and analyzing what occurred in an effort to continually develop better practices and enhance our response for when it happens again. Despite the significant disruption to our community, we did not experience any serious injuries or deaths as a result of the gridlock, and we are very thankful that everyone is safe.
• What happened on Sunday? Despite our best efforts to get the message out that Sunday was expected to be a very heavy travel day with a significant winter storm arriving, thousands of people chose to drive home in the late afternoon. Ski resort traffic, holiday week I-80 westbound traffic, and other departing Truckee visitors, brought an unprecedented number of motorists into west Truckee in the afternoon – upwards of 80,000 people by some estimates. By late afternoon heavy snow was falling and I-80 had been closed for several hours. Once it was determined that I-80 westbound would likely not open until the following morning, our priority quickly moved from addressing gridlock to preventing a public emergency. It is not acceptable or safe to allow 30,000 to 50,000 vehicles and some 70,000 people to sit in their cars overnight for 18+ hours on the streets of Truckee on a cold, stormy night. From approximately 5:00 pm until 10:00 pm, the Truckee Police Department, California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, and State Parks Police flushed all traffic that had accumulated on Truckee roadways, 89 S, and I-80 westbound onto I-80 eastbound. Motorists were advised to seek other routes or find accommodations in Reno or elsewhere in the region. There was a tremendous amount of collaboration and effort from all the agencies present to make this happen in such a short period of time.
• Where were the police and why were they not directing traffic? On average, the Truckee Police Department staffs each shift with 1 supervisor and 2 officers. Those numbers fluctuate a bit, but often there are no more than 1 supervisor and 3 officers working at any given time. On Sunday, we had 4 supervisors and 9 officers throughout the day and into the night, more than quadrupling our average police staffing. On average, the Truckee Police handle 30-40 calls for service in a day. From 12:00 am on Saturday to 12:00 am on Monday (48 hours), the Truckee Police Department handled over 200 logged calls for service. In addition, there were over 100 incidents that officers came across through patrolling, unrecorded motorist assists, and direct officer contacts that were not logged. Those core police services happened across our Town and were in addition to the personnel needed to control traffic at the Coldstream intersection.
• Is this what it will look like if we have to evacuate in a wildland fire? The Town of Truckee has made huge strides in preparing for and enhancing our ability to communicate evacuation orders in the event of a wildland fire. A regional holiday week exodus involving a snow storm that closes the most critical direction of travel on I-80 for 19 hours has little similarity to what a wildfire evacuation might look like. We will continue to study and analyze evacuation models as we refine our Emergency Management Program, but we remain highly confident that evacuations would happen much quicker and would be less complicated than what occurred on Sunday.
• What can we learn from Sunday and improve next time? Sunday’s gridlock was certainly not solely caused by Truckee visitors leaving Truckee. This issue must be addressed on a regional level. More communication needs to occur before the gridlock begins, and we need cooperation from resort associations, ski resorts, hoteliers, short-term rental owners, and the resort (and Chamber of Commerce) marketing departments. We will continue actively pursuing a collaborative and comprehensive regional communication strategy for those days where we believe gridlock may happen. Operations on I-80 and interstate commerce are also significant considerations when it comes to motorists that were on I-80 being forced onto our Town streets.
We have initiated a regional dialogue with CalTrans, CHP, hoteliers, ski resorts, Placer County, the Town, and others through a regional organization known as the TMA (Transportation Management Association) to further our collaborative efforts in communicating to everyone and managing these rare, but challenging situations. One of the most valuable tools for all residents and visitors is to subscribe to Nixle by texting Truckee’s zip code to 888777. Another very informative app is CalTrans QuickMap.
I realize how challenging gridlock events are. . . If there are any thoughts that “the Town” doesn’t care, or that [the] police department doesn’t care, I can assure you that is not the case. We are committed to doing everything reasonable to avoid or mitigate the impacts of such events.
Chief of Police