Las Vegas Sun

December 15, 2018

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More lights could make beltway safer

Intersections along the Las Vegas Beltway, including sites of fatal crashes, could soon get new signs warning drivers of upcoming red lights.

Clark County Public Works Director Martin Manning said Monday his department is now reviewing all intersections along the beltway that are controlled by traffic lights.

Some experts have said warnings could reduce the number of fatal accidents along the roadway, which tend to happen at the intersections. Crashes have occurred when speeding traffic along the beltway comes up to the intersections, hitting cars stopped at lights or in the intersection on a crossing street.

Sandy Thompson, a Las Vegas Sun executive, died Aug. 9 when a speeding truck rammed into her car at the beltway's Far Hills Avenue intersection. The truck driver, 21-year-old John Simbrat, was charged with driving under the influence of a controlled substance, felony reckless driving and involuntary manslaughter. Police said they found seven times the legal limit of THC, the active ingredient of marijuana, in his blood.

Police have attributed other fatal crashes on the road to inattention and speeding. A Sept. 1 Sun analysis found that accidents on the beltway led to fatalities at about three times the national rate -- 18 per 1,000 accidents versus six per 1,000 nationally, according to federal and state traffic authorities.

At three intersections where warnings were installed less than a year ago, no new fatalities have been recorded. Accidents prompted the warning lights -- which flash yellow when a driver approaches a traffic signal that is or will soon be red -- at Durango Drive, Jones Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue.

Manning said Public Works is now reviewing all six intersections controlled by traffic lights that do not already have a warning signal. The intersections are on the west and southwest portions of the beltway, which now has more than 33 miles open to traffic.

One of the intersections under review and which now has no warning light is at Rainbow Boulevard, which has had the most accidents -- 81, including 28 that have resulted in injuries and one fatal crash.

Manning said all six are likely to get new warnings, but what type of warning signal, when they would go in and how much they would cost have not been determined.

The engineering review could take a few months, he said.

Bobby Shelton, Public Works spokesman, said the department decided to take a closer look at the intersections because of community concern about fatal accidents and the department's own ongoing regular engineering analysis of roadways under its management.

Manning, who spoke at a Monday morning press conference, agreed with other regional transportation officials in saying the ultimate solution to traffic problems along the beltway is for voters this November to pass Question 10 -- a $2.7 billion tax initiative that would pump money into mass transit, road construction and traffic-control systems.

Clark County Commission and Regional Transportation Commission members Bruce Woodbury and Chip Maxfield, with RTC General Manager Jacob Snow, made the pitch for the initiative, which would come mostly from increased sales taxes.

"Interstate 215," the other moniker for the beltway, "is a crucial element in our transportation program," Woodbury said. The community "urgently needs" a full-fledged freeway to replace the patchwork of county highway, frontage roads and arterial streets that make up the road now, he said.

Woodbury pegged the cost of the full freeway at $843.5 million. With the tax initiative, the freeway with at least six full lanes and 40 interchanges could be completed in a decade, rather than 23 years without the extra funding.

Funding for a newly accelerated construction program would include $104 million from existing development and motor vehicle taxes, $140 million in federal funding and $600 million from the tax initiative, Woodbury said.

Woodbury and other officials said the beltway now is a successful testament to a similar tax package passed in 1990. The money from the original 1990 Question 10 allowed the County Commission, in 1996, to approve beltway construction that would provide a ring around two-thirds of the Las Vegas Valley, but would be short of the full freeway.

The scaled-back beltway is scheduled to be complete in December 2003 -- 17 years ahead of schedule. On Sept. 5, officials broke ground on the last 6.5-mile segment between Cheyenne Avenue and El Capitan Way in northwest Las Vegas.

And the link between Decatur Boulevard and Interstate 15 in the northeast valley will open on Oct. 3.

"We think amazing progress has been made, but some segments of the beltway are already inadequate thanks to our amazing growth," said Woodbury, who is chairman of the RTC. The beltway as now structured "can't come close to meeting demand."

"There isn't a more important transportation project in the valley," Maxfield agreed. "It is becoming increasingly important in moving traffic around the valley.

"We can no longer wait until the year 2025 to have a finished beltway," he said.

Clark County Public Works staff members are already developing plans to build the full freeway in the southeast part of the valley, from Durango west and north.

Maxfield and other transportation officials said they are confident the area can draw federal matching funds for work on the beltway -- usually provided at an 80 percent federal to 20 percent local split.

Not everybody is convinced about the necessity of the tax initiative for beltway work and transportation improvements throughout the region.

Kenneth Williams, a retired Los Angeles city attorney, is one of three local residents who have written the arguments against the question to appear on the upcoming sample ballot.

He said much of his disappointment with the proposal comes from its reliance on the increased sales tax to fund the bulk of new road work. He said that is significantly different from the original proposal that a citizen's group produced earlier this year.

He said the beltway probably deserves increased funding, but other projects the initiative will pay for -- such as hundreds of miles of bicycle paths -- do not warrant the same consideration.

"The people in this area have to look carefully to see whether they want to approve this particular plan, which has been changed so much," Williams said. "We do need some improvements in the roads, no question, but whether their list is what we need and whether we should finance it in the way they are suggesting is another matter."