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August 30, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Hey governor, please allow us 15 miles of toll-free interstate down here

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

A free road for the north, a toll road for the south.

Someone with a sharper wit than I came up with it, but the metaphor neatly encapsulates Southern Nevada’s raw deal compared with the rest of the state.

In one instance, however, it’s literally true — a free road from Reno to Carson City, a toll road from Las Vegas to Phoenix.

Visitors to the Legislature keep telling me about zipping from Reno to Carson City on the new Interstate 580, six lanes of modern convenience, which Gov. Brian Sandoval called “not just a home run, it’s a grand slam,” at a ribbon cutting last year.

It should be, for what it cost. Decades in the making, it was half a billion dollars for 8 1/2-miles, pricey because of its nine bridges, including one that spans 1,700 feet — the longest bridge of its kind in the world.

My colleague in the north David McGrath Schwartz last year described its automatic sprayers that apply a saline solution on the bridges in cold weather to prevent freezing, and an 8-foot fence to prevent deer from leaping to their deaths. (Keep them alive so we can hunt and kill them!)

When you’re driving the other road from Reno to Carson City in the valley below the new freeway — yes, they already had a road, but it wasn’t grand enough, apparently — you can see the engineering marvel hugging the side of a mountain. Between the two roads, there are 10 lanes — blessedly free of traffic and tolls — from Reno to Carson City.

It’s preposterous.

Here in the south, where more than 70 percent of the population lives, many of us are familiar with the Boulder City bottleneck. But that’s just one of many annoyances as you try to get from here to Phoenix. More important for our economy, however, is the annoyance for people getting from Phoenix to here.

There aren’t two comparable cities in the entire United States without a freeway between them, and it costs our economy untold millions of dollars every year because Phoenix residents who might come to Vegas wind up vacationing elsewhere because they don’t want to drive on a road that’s more appropriate for 1930s Okies.

Now, however, we’re in the planning stages of Interstate 11 between here and Phoenix that will carry visitors and conventioneers but also help us expand the movement of goods and services.

And the best part is that Arizona, which wants to direct cargo from points south and west and send it north, is so eager to get it done that we only have to build 15 miles to their 250.

Imagine we are two islands that want to build a bridge to facilitate trade, and the other island is willing to build more than 90 percent of the bridge. Good deal, right?

But even that 15 miles that would take drivers around Boulder City — coming at a perfect time to be buying, building and investing in the future — is apparently too much for Nevada.

The 15 miles would be done in two phases, three miles in the first and 12 in the second. The last Legislature approved a study for — you guessed it — a toll road. The Nevada Department of Transportation is buying right-of-way and getting the usual resistance from property owners, who want unholy sums for their parcels.

This was recounted in the press this month, when Sandoval, who heads the transportation board, publicly expressed doubts about the project, saying he didn’t want to do phase one if phase two financing isn’t in place, fearing phase one would become a “road to nowhere.”

Which is true, except that Sandoval, as governor and head of the transportation board, has it within his power to make sure that phase two happens. But I’m not sure the governor — who has called Reno home most of his life — is really committed to it.

I’m reliably told the whole kerfuffle raised eyebrows in Arizona. And understandably — they must be wondering why they should build a 250-mile freeway if it’s going to empty out in the middle of Boulder City gridlock.

In a later interview, Sandoval assured me he’s committed to the project, which is why he worked with Sen. Joe Hardy on the bypass legislation in 2011.

“I’m just saying I want to make sure the money we’re spending is going to be appropriate so if we spend it and buy parcels and build the ramps to connect to the bypass, that there’s going to be a bypass to connect to.” He agreed the money would be “well spent” because it flows into the I-11 project.

Sandoval also said his support for “Project Neon,” a $1 billion-plus project which would relieve congestion around the Spaghetti Bowl, shows his commitment to Southern Nevada infrastructure.

I don’t find this convincing. To begin with, Project Neon may add capacity, but it’s not a new road like the interstate to Phoenix.

And, if Sandoval is committed to transportation infrastructure, then why is he raiding the highway fund to the tune of $126 million to balance his budget, while also claiming poverty when it comes to the Phoenix road?

The problem with the Phoenix road is that the toll would provide financing for just a quarter of phase two’s cost, which is $320 million.

When I asked Rudy Malfabon, the director the Nevada Department of Transportation, about this, he acknowledged the problem: “That’s the issue. Where would the funds come from for the rest?”

When I said his department should pay for it, Malfabon — a UNR graduate, naturally — said the department budget for road construction is $350 million per year, so we couldn’t very well use most of it for that one project.

I offered up a modest proposal: Toll that gleaming new road from Reno to Carson City, and use the money to build our road to Phoenix. The lobbyists using the toll road would just bill their Southern Nevada clients, so we’ll end up paying for it anyway.

My suggestion was met with what might be called awkward silence and then awkward laughter.

Southern legislators of both parties need to come together on this — build a road to Phoenix so our casinos can take more money from its 4.3 million residents, and do it now.

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