Wednesday, March 30, 2016 | 9:45 p.m.
Decades down the road, Henderson could be home to bustling economic development — a hub for freight, warehouses and the manufacturing industry.
The road that could make all those things possible? Interstate 11.
That’s the picture that Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, painted Wednesday night at a meeting of the Henderson Development Association at the Railroad Pass resort, located near a terminus of the first phase of the interstate’s construction in Nevada.
That first phase is a bypass around Boulder City and a key portion of Interstate 11 that will link I-515 with the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge near Hoover Dam. Ground broke on the project last spring and is expected to be completed in the spring of 2018.
The Railroad Pass is already hoping to capitalize on the project. Owner Joe DeSimone said he hopes to build a travel center for tourists and truckers.
But the economic development opportunities of the interstate extend much further. Eventually, Interstate 11 will span from the border city of Nogales, Mexico, north toward Reno, passing through both Phoenix and Las Vegas. That means significant economic opportunities not only between Las Vegas and Phoenix but also between Las Vegas and Mexico, Quigley said.
“Why do we care? Commerce. Because it’s economic development, economic activity. It’s a new opportunity for diversifying businesses in Las Vegas,” Quigley said. “We want to do that because we’ve been such a gaming heavy and construction heavy community. When things are good, they’re really really good. When things are bad, they’re really really bad.”
Interstate 11 will provide an opportunity for economic diversification, helping stabilize the region’s economy, Quigley said. Plus, she added, Las Vegas and Phoenix are the only two major metropolitan cities not linked by an interstate.
Still, there are a many details that remain up in the air. For instance, Arizona has to do its share. Part of its portion of I-11 is currently under construction, upgrading its freeways to interstate standards and widening them to include extra lanes. At the same time, Arizona is working with Mexico to find ways to improve their trade corridor.
One of the biggest question marks is funding.
An example? Congress recently approved the extension of Interstate 11 north from Las Vegas toward Reno as part of a major transportation bill. That approval didn’t come with funding, though it does make it easier to secure federal funds for that project moving forward.
Funding was also complicated with the bypass project currently underway. Originally, some of the funds from the county’s fuel tax, known generally as fuel revenue indexing, were going to be spent on Interstate 11. But after the RTC switched around some of its existing federal funds to the interstate project, it was able to reserve most of those fuel revenue indexing funds for local projects.
The federal dollars come with more strings than the local dollars, making it easier and faster for the RTC to build, maintain and improve local streets and highways. But those local funds will dry up after this year, unless voters approve a 10-year extension of fuel revenue indexing in November.
Should voters approve the extension, those funds could be used for future portions of Interstate 11 in Clark County and any of the other numerous unfunded projects that the RTC has on its list, Quigley said.
The next phase of Interstate 11 construction in Nevada is likely to be years away. The next step is an 18-month to two-year traffic study of the Las Vegas metropolitan area to see how traffic currently flows and where it would make most sense to run the interstate through the valley. The study is expected to launch in the next couple of months, said Sondra Rosenberg, an assistant director at the Nevada Department of Transportation.
Three existing proposals suggest that the interstate either follow U.S. 95 through the valley; follow U.S. 95 north to the 215 Beltway, travel across the north part of the valley on a new freeway segment and then join back up with U.S. 95; or circumvent the valley by traveling north, east of the mountains, joining up with I-15 by Nellis Air Force Base, and then joining the 215 Beltway in the north to connect to U.S. 95.
Scott Muelrath, president and CEO of the Henderson Chamber of Commerce, said that the chamber would be involved in the discussions over which route to select to advocate for the business community.
“When we look at Henderson and we look at our Henderson economic development opportunities, there will be a lot of input and a lot of discussion,” Muelrath said.
Those conversations are ongoing, but they’re also unlikely to find an end anytime soon — there are the studies, the bureaucracy of the approval process, and funding to be secured.
But to the naysayers who doubt whether Interstate 11 will ever come to fruition, Quigley gives a resounding “yes.”
“The first phase is under construction,” Quigley said. “There is absolute commitment to seeing this thing advance.”