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Las Vegas to Phoenix interstate, seen as a ‘game-changer,’ is step closer to reality

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Justin M. Bowen

Traffic leaving town gathers on U.S. 93 near the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge outside Boulder City on Friday, Feb. 25, 2011.

Fri, Jun 29, 2012 (2 a.m.)

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This Nevada Department of Transportation graphic shows the route of the proposed Boulder City Bypass. If U.S. 93 is designated an interstate between Las Vegas and Phoenix, the bypass route would become part of the interstate, officials say.

A measure applauded by Southern Nevada business leaders as a key to future interstate and international commerce is one step closer to passage after a joint committee of Congress inserted language officially designating a route between Phoenix and Las Vegas as Interstate 11.

The agreement reached Wednesday — 56 years to the day from when President Dwight Eisenhower signed the nation’s first surface transportation bill into law, effectively beginning construction of the interstate highway system — lists I-11 as a route designation in the amended Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

Passage of the legislation, which could come later today, wouldn’t provide funding for I-11, but it would put the route in line for federal dollars to upgrade U.S. 93 to interstate highway standards.

The designation is part of the $120 billion bill to renew transportation funding in the United States for the next two years. Current funding is due to expire this weekend.

Business leaders in Nevada and Arizona have backed the I-11 designation as the first stage in connecting Phoenix and Las Vegas, the two largest metropolitan areas not connected by interstate highway. But ultimately, I-11 could be a conduit for international commerce, connecting ports in Mexico with the Canadian border through Nevada.

Some state leaders are eyeing the designation of I-11 as a possible means of funding a four-lane interstate highway linking Las Vegas with Reno.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce has been one of I-11’s biggest boosters. Following Wednesday’s committee agreement, Kristen McMillan, the organization’s president and CEO, called the designation “a game-changer for our region.”

“Interstate 11 will be the most significant infrastructure built in our region in 50 years and will open up a frontier of opportunities to expand and diversify our economy including in areas of tourism, distribution, manufacturing and logistics,” McMillan said. “It will connect Las Vegas to Phoenix and the entire western region of the United States, positioning Southern Nevada as more nationally and globally competitive.”

In an Associated Press report Thursday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said it would be “a significant step in continuing to foster economic development and tourism, build stronger transportation infrastructure for the Intermountain West and support national and international trade.”

While Congress and federal transportation planners were poring over the national and international implications of I-11, local planners were concentrating on the northern end of the first piece of the project — a 15-mile bypass around Boulder City.

The Regional Transportation Commission and the Nevada Transportation Department conducted a three-hour open house to explain the two-phase Boulder City Bypass Project, which would route traffic coming off the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Bridge south around Boulder City and reconnecting with the U.S. 93 route near the end of Interstate 515 in Henderson.

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This artist's rendering shows what the redesigned interchange of Boulder City Bypass and U.S. 93 would look like at Railroad Pass. Railroad Pass Casino is at left. If U.S. 93 is designated an interstate between Las Vegas and Phoenix, the bypass route would become part of the interstate, officials say.

The Regional Transportation Commission was authorized by the Nevada Legislature to explore development of the bypass as a public-private partnership — a plan that would turn the bypass into a toll road.

While some critics have questioned whether the bypass should be a toll road, the big plus would be that the $500 million project could be completed by 2018 or 2019 with an accelerated construction schedule financed by toll receipts.

Nearly 100 people attended Thursday’s open house on the bypass.

While the bypass route is set — it would start near two casinos, Railroad Pass on the north end and Hacienda on the south — “everything else is on the table,” said Fred Ohene, assistant director of engineering and planning for the RTC.

Ohene explained that the Las Vegas-based Louis Berger Group is analyzing prospective toll structures to determine what price point would guarantee maximum revenue. The company, working with regional offices of CDM Smith, a Massachusetts-based international consulting, engineering, construction and operations firm, is studying tolls ranging from 50 cents to $5 with a number of variations for vehicle size, weight and classification.

Paul Marcella of CDM Smith explained that pricing the toll too high would discourage traffic on it, but pricing it too low wouldn’t generate revenue for the project at a rate sufficient to pay for construction and management of the road.

Ohene said environmental clearances have been obtained for the prospective route, established by the Transportation Department in 2005, but because tolling is being introduced as a prospective new element to the plan, an extra environmental review that would take six to eight months needs to be conducted.

The route would have three access points, two at the end points and at an interchange where the bypass would intersect with U.S. 95, the highway the runs south toward Searchlight and Laughlin.

Most of the route is on flat desert land that would be relatively easy to engineer. But the two miles on the south end of the route is through rugged, mountainous terrain that would include 6 percent grades and a 240-foot rock cut.

Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler and state Sen. Joe Hardy, whose district includes Boulder City, attended the open house in support of the project.

Tobler said that while some Boulder City residents have expressed concern about the bypass hurting business, he thinks the project “opens up opportunities” for the city.

“That’s why the pricing of the toll is so important,” Tobler said. “Not everybody is going to use the bypass because some people will take the existing route to avoid the toll. But many truck drivers will want to avoid congestion and use it.”

He said a potential opportunity would be the construction of a truck stop terminal. But he added that opens up another issue — the inability of a terminal to generate potential gaming revenue since gambling is illegal within Boulder City limits.

But he said there are other opportunities with the proposed I-11 corridor being envisioned as a high-speed rail, energy and fuel transmission corridor. Hardy noted that representatives of a new solar panel manufacturing plant in Laughlin want better highway infrastructure to transport products and could help fund the highway project.

“The way I see it, we’re already five years behind the commerce curve,” Tobler said. “We always knew what completion of the bridge would do. We need to catch up and the best way to do that is to get details of the tolling resolved.”

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