Thursday, June 23, 2011 | 2:06 p.m.
The Nevada Department of Transportation has a warning for motorists: Beware of giant animals near a Las Vegas freeway beginning Friday.
It’s not the filming of a Hollywood movie or a science experience gone wrong; it’s freeway art. Crews are expected to begin installing giant animal sculptures along the sides of Interstate 15 in the southern valley early Friday morning.
By the time the freeway project is done late next summer, there will be 40 animal statues between Blue Diamond Road and Tropicana Avenue.
The sculptures are made of metal, cut to give the figures a three-dimensional appearance. They range from 9-feet to 11-feet tall and include horses, burros, big horn sheep and coyotes.
The animal statues are the most prominent part of the landscaping and aesthetics portion of the $246 million I-15 Design-Build Project South, which is widening the freeway.
In addition to the beginning of statue instillation, which will continue intermittently for several months, some of the new access roads along the sides of the freeway are scheduled to open Friday morning.
The Transportation Department is warning motorists to be aware of the changes so they’re not surprised as exits move and statues attract drivers’ eyes.
The first access road to open will be the northbound road from before Blue Diamond to the Las Vegas Beltway interchange. The road will allow traffic entering and exiting the freeway to use separate lanes from traffic continuing on I-15.
The roads should help traffic flow more smoothly, both as construction continues and once the project is done, said Luke Rollins, an assistant resident engineer for the department.
But first there may be some confusion for motorists. “They’re going to be well-marked, but it’s going to be a learning curve, just like on any new aspect of a project,” Rollins said.
Officials also expect the new ramp from Blue Diamond Road to the interstate to open next week, about five months ahead of schedule, Rollins said.
The Blue Diamond Road area will also be where the first set of animal statues will be installed.
Federal government guidelines suggest between 1 percent and 3 percent of a road project’s cost go to landscaping and aesthetics.
The Transportation Department wanted to make sure I-15 looked nice since it was the entry to Las Vegas for visitors from California, spokeswoman Michelle Booth said.
But there are also practical reasons for the landscaping. “We have to put in some landscaping or else we have dust and mudslide problems,” she said.
The landscaping includes thousands of plants that are native to southern Nevada, including many that have been rescued from other construction areas and will be relocated to the project area by Soil-Tech, a local company.
The company will be planting 153 Joshua Trees along the freeway, and many of them are hundreds of years old.
The landscape is designed to be drought-tolerant and low maintenance.
“We’ll water for six months to a year, then once they take hold we let them on their own and Mother Nature provides enough water for them,” said Brian Esposito, the vice president of business development for Soil-Tech. “They’re pretty hardy, they’re used to living in the desert.”
The animal statues are also low maintenance; “They don’t need watering either,” joked Gene Perry, the owner of P&S Metals, which is manufacturing the art and the support beams for signs used on the project.
If someone puts graffiti on the animals, the paint can just be brushed off, Perry said. “It’s a very simple cleaning process.”
Each statue, which weighs about a ton, will be bolted to a concrete pad.
The project was a lifesaver for the local metal company, which has suffered in the recession, Perry said. They hired about 12 extra people to work at the shop, bringing the staff to more than 40 members.
Not many places in Las Vegas are able to do this type of metal work, Perry said. “If we hadn’t taken this job it would have been done in California or Utah.”
But the shop hasn’t done much artwork; most of their work is on structural supports and elements not usually seen by the public.
“This is the first time we’ve had something we can look at and say ‘isn’t that nice,’ ” Perry said.
Plus, he thinks the statues will become popular with locals and tourists, especially the four big horn sheep that will be installed near Russell Road.
“I predict four of these will be the most common thing photographed in this town other than our welcome sign,” Perry said.