Published Saturday, July 11, 2009 | 2:01 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, July 15, 2009 | 2 a.m.
The Hoover Dam bypass bridge is not just an engineering marvel that will route traffic off the dam. The four-lane span, scheduled to open late next year, also paves the way for realizing long-standing hopes of a Las Vegas-to-Phoenix freeway.
The bridge is being constructed to the standards necessary to be part of the proposed Interstate 11, a freeway that governments on both sides of the state line have bought into.
The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada last week became the latest in a handful of government agencies in Arizona and Nevada to pass a resolution supporting the designation. The Las Vegas City Council passed a similar resolution last month.
It’s not a new idea, though. A loose coalition of planners and businesspeople has been promoting the designation of a Phoenix-Las Vegas interstate since 2007.
The impetus was simple and striking: These are the nation’s only two metropolitan areas of a million-plus people each that are not connected by an interstate highway, according Tom Skancke, a consultant working with parties in both cities on the project.
That same fact was noted, with some incredulity, by the researchers who put together a 2008 Brookings Institution report on the region’s most pressing needs.
One baby step toward the Phoenix-Las Vegas freeway took place two years ago, when the Maricopa Association of Governments in Arizona studied a proposed freeway corridor along the western edge of Phoenix. Dubbed the Hassayampa Freeway, it would connect U.S. 93 north of Wickenburg, Ariz., to Interstate 10 in the southern Phoenix suburbs, according to the study. That would lay the groundwork for Interstate 11 in Phoenix.
The Hassayampa Freeway, however, is still just lines on a piece of paper — a planning document for the towns along the corridor to use in their development agreements for the master-planned communities that have permission to build there, Maricopa Association of Governments Senior Engineer Bob Hazlett said.
Interstate 11 is going to take a lot more work. It would require, first, an act of Congress, and then would need massive amounts of money from an already overstretched source.
If Congress designated the new interstate highway, the project would be put in line for money from the federal highway fund. However, that fund is fueled by the gas tax and is declining as car owners drive less and buy more fuel-efficient vehicles, Skancke said.
“You have to recognize it’s going to be tough to get because of the cost,” said Rudy Malfabon, assistant director of the Nevada Transportation Department. An official cost estimate hasn’t even been put together yet, he said.
But, Malfabon added: “On the bright side, you have both states doing improvements.”
And those improvements are paving the way toward an interstate designation. In addition to the bypass bridge, other projects along U.S. 93 in Arizona and Nevada are being built and planned to federal interstate highway standards.
The Arizona Transportation Department for the past 11 years has been widening the highway between Wickenburg and Hoover Dam to four lanes. The two lanes that are being added meet federal interstate standards, Arizona Transportation Department spokeswoman Teresa Welborn said.
If the highway were designated an interstate, only the older two lanes would need to be improved, she said.
And the Nevada Transportation Department has just made changes to the proposed Boulder City Bypass that would bring it to interstate levels, at least until it gets to the Eldorado Mountains approaching Hoover Dam, project manager Glenn Petrenko said. If an interstate were created, that portion could get an exception as a mountainous route, he said.
In fact, maps of the design changes show the first phase of the redesigned bypass labeled as Interstate 515 — an extension of the freeway that connects downtown Las Vegas to Henderson.
The improvements have been designed to make travel from U.S. 95 north from Laughlin to Las Vegas more efficient and to provide local access to planned development in Henderson, Petrenko said, but the Nevada Transportation Department plans to request interstate designation once the roadway is completed.
As the pieces fall into place, Skancke said, the time could be right politically to designate the first new interstate since 1985.
Infrastructure is a priority for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Jon Kyle, R-Ariz., as well as for the rest of the congressional delegations of both Nevada and Arizona. It’s also a priority for President Barack Obama, said Skancke, who does lobbying work in the nation’s capital.
“Now is the time to be investing and doing infrastructure projects in the country, especially in this region,” Skancke said.
Reid spokesman Jon Summers confirmed that the Senate majority leader is familiar with the proposal and plans to be helpful.
Phoenix Councilwoman Peggy Neely, who leads the Maricopa Association of Governments, said it may take awhile, but she’s a believer.
One of her children attends UNLV and she owns a home in Clark County, so she makes the trip up U.S. 93 15 to 20 times a year.
“I know what the traffic is out there,” she said. “I know it would be beneficial.”