Las Vegas Sun

August 21, 2019

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Where I Stand:

Interstate 11 in Nevada: Where do we go next?

As he does every August, Brian Greenspun is taking some time off and is turning over his Where I Stand column to others. Today’s guest columnist is Robert Lang, the executive director of the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West at UNLV, and a professor of urban affairs at the university.

Dr. Robert Lang, executive director of the Lincy Institute and UNLV director of Brookings Institute Mountain West speaks during Preview Las Vegas 2012 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.

Dr. Robert Lang, executive director of the Lincy Institute and UNLV director of Brookings Institute Mountain West speaks during Preview Las Vegas 2012 at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012.

Now that Nevada's initial section of Interstate 11 to Phoenix is complete, the Nevada Department of Transportation is soliciting input on where the road should go next. Given that Arizona is responsible for completing I-11 south from our state line to Phoenix, and is actively working to do so, Nevada can plan additions to I-11 north within the state.

Most of the discussion so far has focused on a proposed road that links Las Vegas to Reno and I-80. I believe the plan is shortsighted; a state-only discussion misses the bigger purpose of I-11 — to link the desert Southwest’s two biggest metros (Las Vegas and Phoenix) to Portland and Seattle, the most populous metros in the Pacific Northwest.

My 2011 book, “Megapolitan America,” shows that by 2040 the desert Southwest and Pacific Northwest “megapolitan areas” will be home to nearly 25 million people. Interstate 11 does not belong to Nevada. Rather, I-11 is a national highway that should connect major megapolitan clusters.

Currently, there is no direct Interstate highway between the Southwest and Northwest. All roads literally lead to California, where traffic enters the highly congested I-5. When interstates in our region were planned at the mid-20th century, Los Angeles and San Francisco dominated the West’s metropolitan development.

Consider that when Major League Baseball expanded outside the Northeast and Midwest, the first two teams to move farther west were the Dodgers and the Giants. Both teams left New York and jumped to Los Angeles and San Francisco, passing over the sparsely settled Great Plains and Mountain West.

On a national scale, interstate planners saw urban America as an extensive metropolitan network east of the Mississippi and two large-scale, booming metros in California. The challenge in the East was linking major proximate population centers with direct routes (look at any U.S. road atlas and you can see the East as a dense web of Interstates).

Over time, the East also built “reliever” interstates that drew traffic away from the most congested highways, such as I-95 from Maine to Miami, which runs along the urban corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C. Take for example I-81, which runs from Dandridge in eastern Tennessee (at I-40) to upstate New York at the Canadian border. Interstate 81 mostly parallels I-95 through the eastern U.S.

The West’s interstate pattern shows a much less integrated network than the East. The Southwest operates on a hub-and-spoke system to this day, with Los Angeles as the hub and Las Vegas and Phoenix as the spokes. That is why we are now building I-11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix. The two regions were too small in the 1950s to justify a direct route. In 2018, the size of these metros makes the connection imperative.

But in recognizing the need to connect Las Vegas and Phoenix, we must also acknowledge that there is no reliever interstate for I-5 in the West. The Southwest and Northwest currently link by interstate highways through California’s traffic-filled freeways or the increasingly congested I-15 along the Wasatch Front (Salt Lake City, Provo, and Ogden) in Utah. But I-11 could be such a reliever road if it allows traffic to flow from Canada to Mexico without ever directly engaging California’s I-5 corridor.

Specifically, I-11 should connect Phoenix and Las Vegas to I-84 at Twin Falls, Idaho, intersecting I-8, I-10, I-40, I-15, and I-80 along the way. Interstate 84 provides a direct route to the Pacific Northwest. It connects to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver — Western Canada’s largest city — via I-5, I-82, and I-90.

Interestingly, Eastern Nevada seems to be mostly left out of NDOT’s I-11 conversation. Leaders in Elko and Ely have taken notice and are beginning to make the case for an I-11 route through their communities. According to the Elko Daily Free Press, White Pine County Board of Commissioners Chairman Richard Howe argues that I-11 should run through Eastern Nevada, following U.S. 93 north from Las Vegas. He notes that such a route is less costly than building I-11 to Reno because it would not require the state to purchase private land. Howe also wants the economic stimulus an interstate highway would bring to Eastern Nevada, which has not seen the major investments in state-supported economic development projects made in both Reno and Las Vegas.

Finally, there are the politics of I-11. At the moment, the I-11 Caucus in Washington includes senators and representatives from just Nevada and Arizona. That means a total of four U.S. senators and 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are advocating for I-11. If, as is currently proposed, I-11 connects just Las Vegas and Reno, there is little prospect of widening its existing D.C. coalition. However, adding Washington, Oregon and Idaho to the conversation engages six more senators and 13 new representatives.

A reliever interstate that connects the Southwest and Northwest and never dumps traffic onto the crowded highways in the Golden State may in turn draw California’s enormous D.C. delegation into the I-11 Caucus. Coalitions are key in policymaking, so the more we do to expand the number of constituencies interested in I-11, the better we might be able to leverage federal support. Enhancing this coalition in particular offers the opportunity to expand I-11 not only for the interests of Nevadans, but for the interests of the entire American West.

Robert Lang has been an advocate of I-11 development for several years and has contributed research on the highway to such planning documents as the state economic development plan.