Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013 | 2:04 a.m.
On Feb. 11, Gov. Brian Sandoval, who oversees the Nevada Department of Transportation’s Executive Board, characterized the Boulder City Bypass, a key component of the long-proposed Interstate 11 project connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix, as “a road to nowhere.”
On Oct. 16, NDOT announced that it is investing $500 million in Project Neon to significantly improve the Las Vegas Spaghetti Bowl and $125 million for the Boulder City Bypass. Other projects in Southern Nevada that will receive funding are improvements to the northern section of the Las Vegas Beltway ($11 million) and enhancements to Las Vegas Boulevard South ($12 million).
How did this happen?
Well, elections can be great motivators. They sometimes force politicians to respond to the preferences of the majority, particularly when that majority is informed and united. Indeed, in recent months, Southern Nevadans documented years of wasteful overspending on transportation projects in Northern Nevada. After being made aware of this information, the region’s representatives in the Legislature proposed changes to the governance of NDOT to bring much-needed independence and expertise to this panel. Not surprisingly, the protectors of the status quo successfully gutted this reform. However, the result of this public discussion — perhaps spurred by the upcoming gubernatorial election as Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Steve Sebelius observed — is a shift in transportation funds to Southern Nevada.
Yet, as recently as last week, a column was published on this site attempting to rewrite the history of northern privilege. Unfortunately, on a number of counts, the author’s defense was less than accurate. For instance, apparently unaware that the Legislature has no control over the distribution of transportation funds (like all state DOTs, NDOT, under the guidance of its executive board, decides how to allocate transportation funds), the author laid the blame for decades of overspending on northern roads at the feet of a single legislator, Bill Raggio.
More troubling, the author dissembled a good deal of misinformation about one of the most obvious examples of northern profligacy, the $500 million Interstate 580 project linking Reno and Carson City. The road did not need to be built on the side of a mountain because the valley is too narrow. There is, after all, a four-lane road that runs through it now (U.S. 395), which could have been expanded at a quarter of the cost. The road was built on the side of a mountain to appease those who did not want the state’s original settled areas, perceived as sacred in some quarters, to be disturbed.
The notion that I-580 will yield economic benefits is equally farcical. The road serves very few commuters, and its route precludes commerce from being located along its length. In contrast, along the Las Vegas Beltway — the locally funded and maintained interstate grade “county road” that serves the 31st-largest metropolitan area in the country — there are numerous resorts, master-planned communities, office parks, shopping malls, warehouse districts, hospitals (including the new Veterans Affairs hospital), and the heart of the U.S. Internet at Switch Communications, not to mention the nation’s ninth busiest airport.
With no economic rationale for I-580 (in the public record there is no analysis of the project’s economic costs and benefits), the exorbitant cost to design, build and maintain the road is even more laughable and preposterous. Most obviously, knowing that mountain roads require more resources to build and maintain, why was a route that exacerbates the very conditions — exposure to harsh winters and mountain conditions — that lead to higher costs chosen?
If, in contrast, I-580 had been built in the valley below, not only would maintenance costs be much lower, the need to build I-580’s seven bridges — including the Galena Creek Bridge spanning 1,722 feet — would have been eliminated.
Also, note that I-580 is six lanes across, which when paired with U.S. 395, expands capacity between Reno and Carson City to 10 lanes. In comparison, the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge crossing the most important river in the Western United States, the Colorado, is four lanes wide.
As a consequence, while the bridge linking the two largest metropolitan areas in the interior Southwest (Las Vegas and Phoenix) is 70 feet longer than the bridge over Galena Creek, it required less steel and concrete and cost less to build because, unlike the Galena Creek Bridge, it did not need to be built twice. Yes, buried in I-580’s tortured history is a $79.5 million payout to the first NDOT managed contractor who was allowed to walk away from the project without any penalty after failing to install the proper bridge footings.
There also is little evidence that the “needs” of the north are being ignored. At this very moment, NDOT is plowing ahead with yet another project of dubious value, spending upwards of $170 million to build a beltway encircling the 55,000 residents of Carson City. Never mind that it’s the smallest U.S. metropolitan area in the country and its population is decreasing.
Until Southern Nevada receives its full and deserved level of state and federal funding, do not tell us how much Northern Nevadans “respect and appreciate” those of us living here. And do not embarrass yourselves by characterizing our illumination of these issues as “bicker(ing) about which part of the state is getting more money.” We are all too aware that those living outside of Clark County would prefer that Southern Nevadans remain quiet and continue producing more than 80 percent of the state’s revenue, asking no questions as Carson City bureaucrats centralize and redistribute this money in a manner that returns far less to the region.
Lastly, do not worry that the South will push the North’s needs aside. We are far too busy driving Nevada’s recovery, diversifying the state’s economy, and leading our region into the global marketplace to have the time for the type of regional pettiness that we have been subjected to for decades.
David F. Damore is an associate professor of political science at UNLV.