Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2015

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Nevada’s most expensive highway helps politicians save face but not much else


The Reno Gazette-Journal, Marilyn Newton / AP

This May 8, 2009, photo shows the Galena Creek Bridge, a 1,700-foot cathedral arch span in Pleasant Valley, south of Reno.

Galena Bridge

The Galena Creek Bridge, a 1,700 foot cathedral arch span in Pleasant Valley, south of Reno, Nev. is shown under construction in July 2011. Launch slideshow »

Nevada’s most expensive highway project will open this month — an 8 1/2-mile stretch of pavement that most Southern Nevadans will never use, unless you’re a politician or lobbyist commuting between Reno and Carson City.

It’s three lanes in each direction, takes travelers over no less than nine bridges, including one that spans 1,700 feet — the longest bridge of its kind in the world.

Automatic sprayers apply a saline solution on the bridges in cold weather to prevent freezing, and an 8-foot fence prevents deer from leaping to their deaths.

The new highway will save motorists between six to eight minutes traveling between the Capitol and Reno International Airport — 32 minutes versus 40 minutes (if you follow the speed limits).

On the other hand, you might find yourself driving slower if you’re bothered by heights or wind.

It will carry an estimated 25,000 vehicles a day — less than a tenth the number of vehicles who survive the Spaghetti Bowl in Las Vegas each day.

And the cost? More than a half-billion-with-a-b dollars.

The new highway, Interstate 580, was paid for primarily with federal and state gas tax money. It has been planned for decades.

“This project is not just a home run, it’s a grand slam,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said at the ribbon cutting last week.

He said it would improve safety, promote commerce and ease commutes.

But to critics, the project was a boondoggle — our own “bridge to nowhere,” as Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani called it when she was in the Assembly. The route was heavily influenced by not-in-my-backyard politics back in 1983. The residents along the current road, U.S. 395, didn’t want an expansion. The project couldn’t be moved to the west because that would run into a tony development. So the Washoe County Commission decided to have the highway hug a hillside overlooking Pleasant Valley to the west.

Some Southern Nevadans say the highway was built so Northern Nevadans could strut.

“I think it’s widely acknowledged as primarily a flex pose in the mirror, designed to celebrate the political might of a couple of Washoe County legislators,” said Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Beers, who was also a legislator as this project was approved. (The late state Sen. Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and late Gov. Kenny Guinn were both honored at the groundbreaking.)

Reno and Carson City are currently connected by a four-lane road that includes driveways and turnoffs, one of a handful of state capitals not linked by a true highway, according to historian Guy Rocha, a former state archivist. It can sometimes be closed by fires or accidents.

The new highway, on the other hand, has been derided by cynics as over the top.

That skepticism grew as the first contractor walked away from the project, citing concerns about constructing the Galena Creek Bridge, 300-feet-high, in heavy winds. The contractor was paid $50 million for the work it completed. In 2007, the transportation board approved another contract with a different company for $393 million, which included completing that bridge and other parts of the project.

The local congressman, Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., said he was looking for hard data that justified the size and scope of the project — a “benefit-cost analysis” of the project.

“In all my time paying attention, I don’t recall seeing one,” said Amodei, who did not attend the groundbreaking. “Anytime you’re talking about a new piece of infrastructure coming on line, it’s a good thing.”

But, he worried that Southern Nevada lawmakers might balk at funding future projects in the north, such as the final leg of the Carson City freeway, which would run through the east side of town. That has a price tag of $100 million.

The Nevada Department of Transportation said the project that is now the top priority is Project Neon, a major improvement to the freeways and interchanges around the Las Vegas Spaghetti Bowl. Its total cost is $1.8 billion.

But there’s no money to pay for it.

Beers cracked that the state could just build a bridge between Summerlin and Green Valley.

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