Las Vegas Sun

June 17, 2019

Currently: 91° — Complete forecast

Slow Traffic Ahead

Stand in front of the Coffee Cup Cafe in the middle of Nevada Highway, Boulder City's Main Street, and listen closely.

Wind blows. Someone laughs in the distance. The Coffee Cup door swings open and closed.

Unheard is something that promises to ruin the quietude of this homey burg of 15,000 that feels anything but Las Vegas. Six miles away, jackhammers and graders and massive trucks move dirt and rock and lay concrete as workers move toward finishing the $234 million Hoover Dam bypass, a four-lane bridge between the two fastest-growing states in the country.

That growth will become even more ferocious in northern Arizona with completion of the bridge in 2010. About 25 miles south of the dam a pair of developers have plans for 55,000 homes - twice the size of Summerlin - advertised as bedroom communities for Las Vegas, a mere 45-minute commute.

The quick drive won't be available for a while. Last week the bridge's opening date was pushed back two years to late 2010, the result of a crane that fell in September. That delay, though, may not postpone the development.

Tens of thousands of homes are planned for the area around Kingman, Ariz., 90 miles south of the dam. Those homes will loom even closer to Las Vegas as the widening of U.S. 93, stretching from Hoover Dam to Kingman to Phoenix, is finished. The federal highway has long been designated as the main leg of the CANAMEX corridor, a trade route linking Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Nevertheless, it goes without saying that within a few years, tiny Boulder City will be awash in cars. At the least, 2,000 trucks daily will return to U.S. 93, a route banned since 9/11.

The road, a mile or so from the Coffee Cup, will become the spillway for the thousands of cars going to and from Arizona. Even now - minus the trucks - the winding road to the dam becomes a slow-moving tangle of vehicles during rush hour. On busy weekends, traffic stops moving entirely.

When the bridge is completed, when those homes are built and when businesses start to pop up along the corridor, it seems Boulder City will change forever.

In short, Hoover Dam, the reason Boulder City exists, may also be the reason that Boulder City as it is known today may not exist for much longer.

The town, erected to house the men who built the dam in the 1930s, remains much the same with a few diners, the eight-lane Boulder Bowl and a one-screen theater. One nod to modernity - a lone Starbucks - is a genuine morning meet-and-greet place for the folks who live and work nearby.

Although that all may change, it's difficult to find anyone in Boulder City worrying too much.

Bob Sears, president of the Boulder City Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has not discussed the impact of the bridge. When told - days before the opening was officially pushed back by two years - that the bridge was to be completed by the end of 2008, Sears was surprised.

"Oh, I'm glad you called," he said, appreciatively. "I will bring it up at the next board meeting."

A few weeks ago more than 250 residents stuffed the Community College of Southern Nevada building to talk about town issues. Yet many seemed oblivious to the bridge, instead voicing complaints about seemingly minor traffic concerns.

Even a reporter for a local weekly newspaper said emphatically, "We need more traffic lights."

That, more or less, encapsulates local reaction. Hands thrown up. Surprise. Acceptance. Shrugging indifference.

"It seems like the city's in a state of denial about the traffic we're going to have in the next decade," said Matt Di Teresa, a resident often critical of the city on his blog. "All they want to talk about is the (Boulder City) bypass. But in reality the bypass will probably never be built."

Although the Nevada Transportation Department lists the Boulder City bypass as one of its priorities, the proposed 13-mile loop around the city is not scheduled to be constructed until 2025. And that means 15 years of headaches between the time the bridge opens and the bypass is built.

The Transportation Department, though, denies that Boulder City will be flooded by traffic, despite the changing drive time, increase in development and return of big rigs.

"Traffic is going to be what's there today," said Glenn Petrenko, a project manager for the department.

Besides the trucks, the only other major traffic addition considered by the Transportation Department is development in Golden Valley near Kingman. But Petrenko said 28 percent of people driving in Golden Valley will leave that area daily; of those, only 5 percent will come to Las Vegas.

If Golden Valley is built out by 2015, there will be an additional 2,450 cars per day generated from that area. And Petrenko said the proposed developments about 30 miles south of the dam are not figured into the calculations because they are so far from fruition.

Plans for a Boulder City bypass have been floating about for years - as has the little city's Hoover Dam Bridge-aphobia.

In 1991 it was estimated that 7 million people traveled annually over Hoover Dam. A group calling itself CAUTION - Citizens Against Unsafe Traffic In Our Neighborhoods - collected 2,000 signatures to ask federal officials to consider building a bridge at Willow Beach, 17 miles south of the dam. That idea was dropped because of the environmental sensitivity of the area and the cost to build 22 miles of highway.

Now 85, Brad Benson was the chairman of CAUTION, which has long since disbanded. His take on why there has been no progress on the bypass over several decades: "I think it's mostly stupidity."

As for the coming traffic, he said the blame will fall on no one, and everyone.

"The problem in Boulder City is nobody ever takes responsibility," he said. "Everybody - governors, senators, NDOT, the City Council - have all stonewalled any progress. Now we're at the point where it's probably too late."

Rep. Jon Porter, mayor of Boulder City in the 1980s, remembers talking about the bypass. Everyone knew a bridge was coming because the curlicued Hoover Dam road had been deemed one of the country's most dangerous.

"So, from the big picture, we knew that a bridge had to be built as soon as possible below Hoover Dam," Porter said. "But we also knew we needed a route around the city. It's been a priority for many, many years in the community."

The biggest hurdle facing the bypass has been, and remains, money.

Nevada recently declared itself $4 billion short in funds needed to upgrade and improve its highways. And a bypass to benefit 15,000 people isn't going to get first dibs on available funds over the million-plus people in Las Vegas, whose commuters pound their dashboards and scream daily at the growing traffic gridlock.

Although Porter helped secure $33 million in federal funds for the construction of a bypass, that falls far short of its estimated $470 million cost.

Porter said he would support a privately constructed toll road, if the state Legislature enacts a law this spring allowing such roads. Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, has proposed a bill and Gov. Jim Gibbons mentioned public-private partnerships in his State of the State address.

As for trying to win congressional approval for more funds, Porter said it's been difficult "getting partners to understand the importance of that bypass."

City Councilwoman Andrea Anderson said she, like many in the city, is at a loss for what to do.

"The dam bridge has been talked about for a long time, but after 9/11, it just shot forward," she said. "That got done. But nobody's too concerned about our bypass."

You need only to take a closer look at the enormity of the undertaking to realize that many people are going to be taking this drive if only to say they drove over a bridge 260 feet higher than Hoover Dam and 840 feet above the Colorado River.

Today, anyone taking a boat ride down the Colorado River can still see artifacts from construction of Hoover Dam, including the 70-year-old catwalks used by workers to navigate the steep canyon walls during and after construction. Then again, you need to go only another six miles west to see the biggest artifact of all - Boulder City.

The two-year delay in opening the bridge was met with a sigh of relief by some in the city. It buys some more time to figure out how to deal with traffic that will swarm the town.

"It's not good that they are having (construction) problems," Councilman Roger Tobler said. "But we don't want the trucks."

Yet they are going to take them - however unwillingly. The Boulder City Police Department already has plans for a four-man traffic unit specializing in handling accidents and truck inspections.

So how long before McDonald's and high rises erode this lingering bit of Nevada history?

With nothing to stop the new flow of traffic, there won't be a long wait for an answer.

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