In a few years, workers and tourists may be able to leave their car behind and take a shuttle bus to Lake Tahoe.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., added $300,000 in federal seed money to start the ambitious project to the Senate version of the transportation budget.
Steve Teshara, director of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, said the Tahoe Transportation District and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency asked Reid's help because studies show more and more people who work in the basin live in Carson City, Minden, Gardnerville, the Truckee area or even in Reno.
"With the price of housing and economic displacement going on, elements of the work force have had to move out of the basin to get housing they can afford," said Teshara. "An increasing number of people are commuting to Tahoe."
Carl Hasty, deputy director of the TRPA, said the goal is to reduce the number of cars commuting to the basin every day, cutting both pollution and congestion. He said that means not only serving workers but tourists.
In fact, it is the tourists who create the greatest load on Tahoe's environment. While just over 50,000 people live in the basin, Hasty said tourists can swell the population to more than 250,000 on a busy weekend.
"Since we're not into building new roads at the lake, transit is the answer," he said. "That's how we've got to deal with the volume and congestion."
"One of the long-term goals would be to have visitors come here without bringing their car," Hasty said.
TRPA and local governments in the basin are already operating a shuttle service around parts of the lake. One shuttle carries people from community to community and to beaches and destinations around the south end of the lake. The other does the same for part of the north end. Hasty said the problem is they aren't connected. Riders can't shuttle all the way around the lake.
Teshara said Tahoe officials have to find a way to complete the shuttle around the lake, then tie it to a system that can bring workers and tourists to and from Tahoe from Carson City, Truckee, Reno and the California side of Highway 50.
"This becomes seed money," Hasty said. "We're trying to secure operating dollars for transit services so this isn't the total answer, but it is a piece."
Both men said they will be looking to local governments, private employers and to see if there is more federal money.
Teshara said he believes they'll find support. He said the fact some ski resorts have been operating a shuttle service to transport their own employees to and from the lake during the winter shows they recognize the need.
But he said residents and governments in the basin can't afford it by themselves, that they need federal help.
"Smaller communities typically aren't eligible to receive that kind of assistance," agreed Hasty.
Both men said that's why the funding in the Senate transportation budget is so important.
To remain in the budget, the funding must also be approved by the House.