Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2019

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Why I-15 won’t go to two levels behind the Strip

It would cost too much, disrupt McCarran

For more than 20 years transportation analysts have suggested double-deck lanes would ease traffic congestion where Interstate 15 slices through Las Vegas’ resort corridor.

Transportation officials last week put that fanciful idea to rest.

Building a freeway that high at the already-elevated interchange of the Interstate 215 beltway would reach into McCarran International Airport’s airspace, an engineer reported at a meeting regarding problems on I-15.

(Oh, and double-deck lanes may be a tad too expensive, transportation officials said.)

Determining airspace incursion isn’t science. The Federal Aviation Administration must have the opportunity to review plans and decide whether a proposed structure poses a hazard, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. But the FAA does not have the authority to dictate local building decisions.

“If we had our druthers, the Stratosphere never would have been built,” Gregor said.

Generally, decisions on building structures near the airport fall to the Clark County Commission. McCarran-area height restrictions exist, but despite clear, straightforward language — “no structure shall be erected, altered or maintained” that would “constitute an airport hazard” — these codes have proved a legal minefield.

Indeed, transportation analysts aren’t the first to confuse airport height guidelines and codes, and probably won’t be the last.

In one lawsuit, Steve Sisolak — now a county commissioner — sued the county years ago for restricting height after he bought parcels about a mile from a McCarran runway. He planned to build a hotel in excess of 110 feet tall (or sell the parcels to someone who would). The FAA said he shouldn’t surpass 66 feet, and the county agreed.

Sisolak sued and won a $6.5 million judgment that held up on appeal in the state and U.S. high courts. (He never built the casino.)

Sisolak bought the parcels understanding he had airspace rights up to 500 feet. The state Supreme Court ruled that airplanes flying lower than that would invade his airspace without compensation.

At least seven cases have been filed challenging airspace restrictions — and tens of millions of dollars in settlements have been paid by the county. Not all suits pertain to laws changed on existing landowners. Pending cases could determine whether a landowner near McCarran who bought the parcel after restrictions tightened can claim airspace rights, a county attorney said.

Height restrictions aside, it’s unlikely the county or the Regional Transportation Commission can block a federal highway project.

A second deck of a freeway would stand at least 20 to 28 feet above the existing roadway, said Bryan Gant, a representative of government consultant Jacobs Engineering. (Sisolak notes that some light poles, billboards and cell towers near McCarran are already that tall.)

When alerted to the FAA’s role as adviser but not decision-maker of airspace-related height issues, Gant said: “I’d have to go back and ask our experts about that one. From what I understand, that’s a line you don’t want to cross.”

The state hired Jacobs for about $780,000 to study the I-15 resort corridor and offer traffic-mitigation suggestions.

Bob McKenzie, a spokesman for the state transportation department, suggested that the height issue was secondary to the hefty cost — more than $1 billion — of a double-deck freeway.

Together, they’re a one-two punch. “Because of the cost and FAA issues, it’s prohibitive,” McKenzie said.

Jacobs recommends 26 ways to ease I-15 traffic, which the company predicts will surge from 200,000 vehicles daily in 2006 to 360,000 in 2030.

The ideas don’t include adding lanes. Once I-15 reaches 10 lanes between the Spaghetti Bowl and the southern beltway, the only way to add more lanes is to go up. And that’s no longer on the drawing board.

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