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July 4, 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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  1. You actually believe southern Nevada gets a raw deal? When southern Nevada has the vast amount of representation in the legislature? What are you smoking, cool man.? Pass it around.

  2. Our representation equals our population, as it should, but for decades northern/rural dominance at the Legislature cemented regional advantages in K12, higher ed, road building etc.

  3. I've been on the new 580 ONCE and vow never again. I consider it a safety hazard. Didn't like the proposal and couldn't believe politicians would waste soooo much of our money to save a couple dozen homeowners the "inconvenience" of revamping the old road thru Washoe Valley. The high bridges on the side of the mountain cliffs are NOT fun. And northern Nevada has recurring earthquakes.... Tolls would not work on 580--many would just take the old road. Not sure I agree about inequities north versus south--the federal money goes to the State for less-populated areas but the federal money goes DIRECTLY TO Clark County and City of Las Vegas because of the population density--so quick calculations on dollars don't reflect reality.

  4. how about private toll roads for both?

    Sell or lease the land to a private company to build a toll road.

  5. This is a great piece. Phoenix wants to be the West Coast Atlanta - a distribution point for goods from both the Pacific, Mexico and Gulf for points North. This would make Las Vegas a secondary distribution point. The Transportation Board is distinctly tilted against Southern Nevada given it's current make up. This needs to be changed.

    What the author didn't mention, but should be is that AZ gets no benefit from the small portion of I-15 they need to maintain. If I-11 doesn't get built, they will make it a toll road and that will further hard the Southern Nevada economy because commerce won't be able to flow freely from Salt Lake through to Los Angeles.

    Write your representatives NOW to urge them to fund I-11.

  6. "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."

    J. Patrick, please cite your source.

  7. You can guess from my screen name than I live in Oklahoma. Not too thrilled about the Okies line.

    Now, my main point is that in Oklahoma there are many toll roads. They work very well, with better maintenance than other roads and their planning and placement is done more quickly. Also, the mantra of the pro turnpike faction is the most basic of truths: "There Are NO Free Roads." A trunpike is paid for by the people who use it. What is the downside to that?

    I agree that Northern Nevada has gotten more than their fair share of the state monies for many years, and it has been damaging to Southern Nevada. In a few more years the effects of term limits, and the dimming of Mr. Raggio's legacy, will begin to equalize the injustice. But equalization of the damage done will probably take at least 30 years.

  8. The funding in Nevada for this Interstate 11 Highway, would (normally) be partially funded by the Federal Government, as All roads of the Interstate Highway System have been.

    One EXAMPLE of Interstate Highway Federal Funding is the initial construction of I-95 (more than 30 years ago) in Northern Virginia. And, more recently, the on-going expansion of "The Beltway" - I-495 - that circles Washington DC. While I-95 runs north and south, it also runs "on-top" of I-495 as it goes AROUND Washington, DC. (to continue its north/south path).

    All of this was built with a majority of Federal Funds (as mandated under President Eisenhower. So the problem for Nevada does not appear to be a lack of STATE funds for Nevada's small leg of I-11 - but rather a lack of political WILL, and CREATIVE discussion, to obtain FEDERAL Funding assistance for this Interstate Highway.

    The primary impetus for building Interstate 11, is because it will be good for local and national interstate commerce: commercial transporation, tourism, freight shipping, etc. - and will reduce the travel time between NV and AZ. I-11 would also INCREASE REVENUE and BUSINESS ACTIVITY for both States.

    So, I suggest that the Nevada DOT, the Nevada Governor, and the Nevada legislators put on their "thinking cap" - and make this happen - WITHOUT ANY TOLLS, ANYWHERE, on I-11. Interstate Highways are supposed to be "FREE-WAYS;" NOT toll roads.

    When Arizona Governor Brewer spoke to the Arizona State legislature earlier in this year about completing I1-11, the response was exhuberant - and with wide bi-partisian acclaim. She said she wanted to finish I-11 "SOON."

    Of course, Governor Brewer never contemplated that teh State of Nevada would create a "SNAIL DARTER" (a small endangered fish) "roadblock" (this time, in the form of funding) - which could be detrimental to the construction of I-11's terminus point, in Nevada.

    The "roadblocks" that the State of Nevada is throwing up (as noted in this article) are actually nothing more than "turf" and "funds" protection by Nevada legislators, and the Nevada DOT. If they wanted this road, they would build it!

    The Clark County Nevada Chamber of Commerce is always saying: "Build it and they will come." Well, if Nevada's leg of the road is never completed, no one will come.

    Here is Nevada's chance to provide so much benefit for the people of Nevada - just like the bridge over the Dam has done. And the people of Arizona will benefit too.

    So, lets stop the political chit-chat, Governor, and DOT, and NV State legislature - find the money, and get the road built!

    You know, even Harry Reid might be able to show his ability to "work wonders," and coordinate funding for this Nevada leg of I-11. Of course, if the State of Nevada powers-that-be instead, did this THEMSELVES - they might not have to give all the CREDIT to Harry Reid.

  9. I see nothing inherently wrong with asking those who use a specific service to pay for it. Toll roads are a personal choice since there are always alternate "free" routes to use. Toll roads are usually faster routes (no traffic signals, no variable speed limits (speed traps), no dangerous intersections, etc.), kept in better repair and more direct. I always chose the toll road (I-294) to bypass Chicago's surface streets and was more than happy to pay the couple of bucks it cost for that convenience. For those who didn't want to pay a fee? They could use the "free" (US 41) roadway provided.

  10. @lvfacts101 hits it on the head. The only way that I-11 is going to be built is by getting the users to pay for it, which means a toll-road. Give it a 80 or 85 mile per hour speed limit and you can be in Phoenix in 4 hours more safely than the current roads will allow.

  11. How bout fixing the "widow maker" between here and Reno? That should've been priority before the Carson to Reno, or Vegas to Phoenix roads.

  12. To address Mr. Coolican's overarching point, Southern Nevada wont get its "fair share" of the Nevada state budget until a southern Democrat is elected governor, and can force the hand of the legislature. Southern Republicans (e.g. Kenny Guinn) couldn't get a fair shake, and anyone from northern or rural Nevada will keep the status quo.

    That said, I don't know why people think its OK to toll just I-11 and then leave all the rest of the roads in the state untolled. If we're so adamant about users pay for roads, then all roads need to be user paid when feasible - basically all the highways outside of major metropolitan areas: I-15 north and south of Las Vegas, I-80 outside of Reno, the new I-580, etc. If we want a user-pays system we need it across the board. Otherwise its just the typical "I don't want to pay for anything that doesn't directly benefit me" selfish attitude.

  13. Just a quick glance at a map of the Interstate system shows a need for a major North/South road in Nevada:

    I see no need for a toll road as part of that system here. That goes against the spirit of the Interstate system. There can be little argument that Las Vegas in general would benefit greatly by having easier access from Phoenix.

    I discount the argument made above that people in Arizona have their gambling needs well-served by Indian casinos. California also has this, with some of the largest along I15 and I10, and several poker rooms in LA county. Yet they come here in droves because the experience is so much better.

  14. @Siromega: I think toll road systems work best when they operate in kind of a socialist manner. Build some toll roads in very busy areas and let them operate at a profit in order to subsidize low volume roads to remote areas. If done perfectly, this improved access increases volume to and value in these areas. Worked well in Oklahoma, for the most part, although some roads are still money losers.

  15. You socialist dupes. Everyone knows that the Interstate Highway system is going to be used to move UN troops around the country and to access locations for FEMA concentration camps. This proposed highway will simply make it easier for the Mexicans to recreate the Aztec Empire to the doom of all patriotic Americans.

  16. chekiski,

    I have not lived in Arizona. I have lived in Los Angeles and Orange Counties at different times for a combined total of 41 years. Texas (10yrs), Virginia (2yrs) and now Nevada (6yrs) round out my 59 years of life.

    I doubt that the experience in Arizona with Indian casinos is much different than that in California.

  17. I-11 should be built with Federal Dollars from Mexico to Seattle/Vancouver completing the final phase of the Northern loop of the Beltway. BTW - it also wouldn't hurt to complete I-70 from Utah to San Jose with a tunnel (like Austria's) through the Sierras, linking Las Vegas and San Francisco who are about 350 Air Miles Apart and right now are a 10 Hour Drive.

  18. The 'infrastructure' to herd people to what is ostensibly the grandest adult playground in all the world is, in a word, PATHETIC to say the very least...

    If you'd planned to make a drive to this burg difficult, you'd have roughly what you have now...

    Las Vegas via Reno
    Las Vegas via Southern Cal
    Las Vegas via Phoenix
    Las Vegas via Salt Lake/Denver

    Horrible, awful trips all.
    Not exactly, 'hey! let's get in the car & head to VEGAS for the weekend!' inducing road trips (though thankfully, MANY still find the lure of 'Vegas' worth traversing one of these Godforsaken, Stephen King-inspiring, brain-numbing, death-inducing 'Great American Road Trips')...

    THAT SAID...
    The notion that a loooong-overdue upgrade for the Las Vegas to Phoenix route will include a TOLL portion is SHEER FOLLY.
    (The fact that the 'Western Wrangler' weighed in to voice support for tolls should tell you all you need to know on the subject).

    Agree that we need to ask our reps in Washington, D.C. WHY they can't get funding for such VIA FED FUNDS; it's one of the few tax-administered functions for which we ALL BENEFIT, regardless of whether you actually physically DRIVE ON IT.

  19. If Nevada would change its stance on Yucca I bet there would be fed funding in a heartbeat. :)

  20. Don't forget: the northern/rural dominance at the Legislature cemented financial, academic, and research advantages of UNR over UNLV.

  21. Reno area is becoming a distribution hub--with access east, west, north, but not-so-much south. How about a real highway from Reno/Carson to/from Vegas? We still need a train on this route too.