Saturday, Feb. 10, 2001 | 12:06 p.m.
To travel the Las Vegas Beltway is to experience a route that goes through more changes than Rich Little or Danny Gans.
Outside of local environmental groups and displaced homeowners, the concept of giving suburbanites another way to travel from one end of the valley to the other has been met with public acceptance.
But because of unforeseen growth, lack of funds and changing political philosophies, the 25-mile stretch of beltway open to the public has four speed zones and one to four lanes in each direction. Beginning in Green Valley, the route goes from two lanes to three to four, back to three, then two, then one and back to two.
Clark County traffic experts such as beltway design and engineering manager Denis Cederburg say the route, built solely with local funds, will help slow the rate of congestion along other major arterials. One such road is Tropicana Avenue between the beltway and Interstate 15.
"We have gotten a lot of congratulations," Cederburg said. "I haven't heard anything negative. People like it, and they ask, 'When are you going to do the rest of it?' "
The county plans to complete a 53-mile roadway by the end of 2003 that connects Green Valley, Summerlin and North Las Vegas. The result on a map will look like a squiggly "C."
But calling it a beltway may be premature. Other beltways, such as those in Washington, Houston and Atlanta, encircle cities and are full-fledged highways.
Only the southern leg that extends along Interstate 215 from Stephanie Street to Decatur Boulevard is an actual highway. Everything else from Decatur to Sahara Avenue resembles frontage roads, interrupted by five traffic signals and, at Flamingo Road, a stop sign.
"The biggest challenge in this thing is you don't have all the money you would like to have," said Mike Hand, the principal civil engineer. "I wish we could do the whole 53 miles as highway at once."
One consequence is that the beltway west of I-15 has become an inviting target for the Nevada Highway Patrol. Westbound motorists on I-215 traveling at the posted 65 mph speed limit must slow down to 55 and then 45 by the time the three lanes turn into two at Decatur.
But during an evening rush-hour commute last week, most cars were doing 55 to 60 mph in the 45 mph zone. Many were going 55 in the 35 mph single lane that separates Flamingo Road and Town Center Drive.
"It's out in the middle of nowhere, so people think they can speed," Trooper Alan Davidson, a highway patrol spokesman, said. "Maybe they figure they can speed because we're undermanned.
"But we do write a lot of speeding tickets out there."
Davidson said some motorists have been caught going more than 90 mph in 45 mph zones. Although that stretch of roadway is no more accident-prone than normal, he said, the beltway at Durango Drive last year had two accidents resulting in three deaths. In both cases, the fatal accidents were caused by motorists who ran red lights on Durango, colliding into vehicles on the beltway that had the right of way.
"If everyone observes the speed limits and pays attention, they will be fine," Davidson said.
But the beltway project is so fluid motorists can count on a change at least monthly in driving conditions somewhere along the route as construction proceeds northward.
With interchange improvements almost complete at Flamingo Road, for instance, motorists within a month will be able to pass beneath the road, bypassing a stop sign. They also will have two 45 mph lanes in both directions between Flamingo and Town Center rather than one 35 mph lane.
About $650 million has been spent since construction began in 1993. The primary funding sources are a 1 percent motor-vehicle registration tax and a tax paid by the valley's developers based on the size of their projects. One-third of those funds have been used to acquire right-of-way land, with the remainder going to engineering and construction.
The project also received $100 million in gasoline tax money for the northern leg. The county has requested $50 million more from the Regional Transportation Commission for the northern leg, including the northwest corner, which will connect it with the western leg. Whether the county has to repay the $50 million is still under discussion.
"When we decided to build the beltway, we didn't think we were going to get any significant federal funding for it for a long time," Clark County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said.
"The state of Nevada is entitled to get federal funds, but our priorities were I-15 and U.S. 95. It also would have taken a lot longer to build the beltway using federal funds because of all the federal environmental standards that would have slowed it down."
By 2004 the county estimates it will have spent about $787 million in today's dollars to connect the 53-mile road. Most of the western and northern legs are expected to be two lanes in each direction with speed limits of at least 45 mph.
Only the section that will eventually run from Cheyenne Avenue on the western leg to El Capitan Way on the northern leg will be one lane in each direction.
After 2003 the county plans to convert frontage-road sections into highway as dictated by traffic demands and available funds. It will take another $700 million to turn the entire beltway into a highway with three lanes in each direction, according to county estimates. The intent is to complete the highway between the divided frontage roads.
Once that is accomplished, the total bill will be about $1.5 billion. But even under the best-case scenario, it would take at least another five years beyond 2003 to build out the highway, according to Bobby Shelton, the county's Public Works Department spokesman.
The cost may also increase because of inflation and unforeseen expenses. With room to expand the beltway to five lanes in each direction if necessary, the cost could go higher if the county decides to expand it.
But Commissioner Mary Kincaid asked county planners last week to consider building a six-mile portion of the northwestern corner from Cheyenne Avenue to El Capitan Way as a 6-lane sunken highway as soon as possible. The current plan for that stretch is to build one lane of divided roadway in each direction.
"It doesn't make sense to build it and then tear it out and have all that disruption now and then again," Kincaid said.
Her request coincided with the groundbreaking of a 3.5-mile segment of the northern leg along Centennial Parkway between El Capitan and Jones Boulevard. The plan is to open the temporary roadway.
But if Kincaid's request is adopted, money would have to be diverted from other phases. It also would mark another policy shift in how the route is built.
Years of planning
The beltway concept was first discussed in the early 1980s, but it wasn't until the late 80s that politicians took the idea seriously. Southern Nevada by then was already growing rapidly.
Woodbury, who helped write the county's Master Transportation Plan in the late 1980s, also authored the funding mechanism to build the beltway. That initiative, known as Question 10, was approved by voters in 1990 and took effect the following year.
"It's really unique," Woodbury said of the funding. "You have local money to build a freeway. You just don't see that happening anywhere else."
The initial plan was to construct the beltway as a highway from Green Valley west to Tropicana Avenue, building additions as needed through about 2020. Green Valley was chosen as the starting point because it had more population at the time than the valley's western and northern areas, Woodbury said. The southern leg also provided an additional route to McCarran International Airport through a tunnel connector.
This did not sit well with many Green Valley residents, who wanted the southern leg placed elsewhere. More than 50 homeowners were displaced and others who remained close to the new route complained about construction dust and noise.
There is no mistaking the popularity of the southern leg today, however. The Nevada Transportation Department reported that daily traffic count on I-215 between Windmill Lane and Eastern Avenue jumped from an average 22,585 vehicles in 1997 to 45,835 in 1999.
But with Summerlin and the northwest valley sprouting like weeds, then-Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones and then-Las Vegas City Councilman Matthew Callister lambasted the county in 1996 for committing most of the beltway money to the southern leg.
That prompted the County Commission that year to abandon its original plan. Instead of extending the highway from Decatur to Tropicana, the commissioners decided to complete the 53-mile route with mostly frontage roads to give other residents at least some immediate traffic relief.
"The west and north weren't going to have to wait for years," Woodbury said. "We said we could expedite the beltway if we reduced the scope."
Instead of budgeting about $16 million a mile on highway additions, the county wound up spending about $3 million to $5 million a mile on frontage roads. Commissioner Erin Kenny, whose district includes portions of the southwest valley, said her constituents are pleased with the beltway.
"So many people are starting to use it more frequently, and they're watching the construction closely," Kenny said. "We could have either built about five more miles of highway or built frontage roads to complete the 53 miles. It was a matter of building something for the entire community instead of serving only about 20 percent."
But new Commissioner Chip Maxfield said he thinks the 1996 decision ought to be reviewed soon because of the continued growth and the need to assess the effect other roads have on the beltway. Cederburg, the county's engineering manager, in fact, conceded that the county has yet to track the volume of traffic on the beltway's frontage roads west of Decatur.
"I agreed with the commission's decision, but there are things that have changed since 1996," Maxfield said. "We've been able to accomplish a lot with the beltway in a short period of time. But it's prudent to review that decision to make sure it is still sound."