Las Vegas Sun

September 30, 2014

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New bridge spanning controversy

Sun reporter Lee Scrivner contributed to this report.

With take-your-breath views on both sides, the narrow road over Hoover Dam is a rubbernecker's dream.

But the two-lane road has become a major bottleneck on the heavily traveled highway connecting Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Finding a new route over the Colorado River to connect Southern Nevada and Arizona has been a goal of a handful of federal agencies for at least a decade.

The increasing volume of traffic over the dam, especially heavy trucks, makes another route imperative, highway officials say. The question is, where should it go?

The federal government, with allies in commercial trucking and the state, wants to build a $200 million bridge south of Hoover Dam. Instead of bumper-to-bumper traffic inching over the dam and the nearby hard curves, they want a four-lane bridge that would span the river 250 feet higher than the towering dam.

The road across the dam has been designated as a primary transportation route for trade under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Advocates for the new road argue that commerce shouldn't be blocked by sightseers.

Construction, depending on the availability of funding and the successful navigation of the design and environmental review process, is scheduled to begin in 2002 with completion in 2007.

But bridging the river demands an engineering feat almost as audacious as building the 726-foot-tall Hoover Dam. And unlike the 1930s, when the dam was built, environmentalists and American Indian groups are organized to stop what they believe will be an expensive mistake.

The Southern Nevada group of the Sierra Club is one of the foremost opponents. Fred Dexter, a conservation committee member of the Sierra Club, wants to stop construction of the Federal Highway Administration's "preferred option" -- a 2,000-foot-long span a quarter-mile south of the dam that would shear off the top of Sugarloaf Mountain before crossing the river.

The environmentalists' main concern is the impact the construction would have on the mountain and on Black Canyon, the stunning chasm that begins beneath the dam.

The Sierra Club has allies among American Indians, many of whom view Sugarloaf Mountain and the surrounding area as a religious and cultural icon.

Preservation support

The environmentalists have support from the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The council promotes "full consideration of historic values in federal decision making."

"Construction of the Sugarloaf alternative would introduce a significant visual intrusion into the dam's setting, which is unchanged in any respect from the 1930s," the agency said in a June update on the bridge project. "Several archeological sites along the Arizona approach also require further investigation."

Dexter and other environmentalists favor putting the new highway across the Colorado between Bullhead City, Ariz., and Laughlin. That alternative wouldn't infringe on the Hoover Dam National Historic Landmark or carve up Sugarloaf Mountain, and the plan has been endorsed by both cities.

"On numerous occasions we have asked that the Laughlin-Bullhead City alternative be considered, and it has always been rejected," Dexter said. "The only one they ever considered was Sugarloaf."

According to the Federal Highway Administration, three crossings were formally evaluated. One, about two miles downstream from the dam, was rejected as too difficult to engineer and because of its proximity to culturally important hot springs.

Another alternative to build a bridge across Lake Mead north of the dam was considered dangerous because of the possibility of a traffic accident spilling contaminants into Lake Mead, the source of Las Vegas' drinking water.

The Laughlin-Bullhead City alternative never rose to the status of a formal option because it was never workable, says Jim Roller, Federal Highway Administration project manager.

"That alternative doesn't meet the purpose and need of this project," Roller said.

The problem is that bringing truck and other traffic through Laughlin adds about 25 miles to the Phoenix-to-Las Vegas trek. Those extra miles would prompt truckers and others to continue using the shorter route over Hoover Dam, Roller said.

Restricting traffic to a southern route into the Las Vegas Valley is not politically feasible, he said.

"It's a free country, and trucks will drive where they want," Roller said.

Daryl Capurro, managing director of the Nevada Motor Transport Association, a trade group, says truckers support the Sugarloaf option.

"The Sugarloaf alternative is clearly the best alternative," Capurro said. "We are absolutely opposed to the Laughlin idea."

While the complete Final Environmental Impact Statement hasn't been compiled by Roller's agency, an appendix on the Laughlin-Bullhead City alternative has been released.

The Federal Highway Administration estimates the Laughlin-Bullhead City route would cost $217 million, including substantial improvements to the highways leading up to the span. Roller said there are other hidden costs -- in gasoline and air pollution -- in making the route longer.

Fuel for thought

The Laughlin-Bullhead City alternative would burn about 5 percent more gas for the Arizona-to-Las Vegas drive -- or about 150 million gallons of fuel over 20 years. Federal engineers say the Laughlin-Bullhead City alternative would cost taxpayers and road users $1.4 billion more than the Sugarloaf option over two decades -- and still wouldn't relieve traffic over the bridge.

"The price of fuel today -- 25 miles is a lot of money," said Ray Roach, a trucker for 40 years and industrial relations representative for the Nevada Motor Transport Association.

But Dexter argues that the federal agency is deliberately omitting the cost of a planned bypass around Boulder City, which could double the cost of the Sugarloaf alternative.

According to Tom Greco, Nevada Department of Transportation project manager for the Boulder City bypass study, the cost for the project could be nearly $170 million.

But that cost shouldn't be included with the Sugarloaf dam bypass, said Greco, who also is NDOT's representative on the Hoover Dam bypass project.

"There are two distinctly different purposes for the two projects," he said.

The two bypasses are close by, and both are responses to increasing traffic along U.S. 93, but they aren't dependent on each other, Greco and Roller agree.

"It's a philosophical debate: Whether a new roadway draws more traffic, or if a roadway gets built because the future traffic demand is there," Greco said. "We're saying that building the dam bypass will not increase traffic."

Dexter said another reason for favoring the route over Sugarloaf Mountain, rather than putting the main crossing at Laughlin-Bullhead City, is because the Federal Highway Administration is catering to truckers who don't want to drive the extra 25 miles to Las Vegas.

Federal officials don't deny the charge. The economic interests of truckers -- and the consumers who buy the products they transport to Las Vegas -- have to be considered, they say.

Contractors benefit

Dexter said both bypasses are essentially huge public works projects that will benefit contractors.

"The financial objective is to spend as much money as possible," he said. "The operative word in this case is excess."

Although the Federal Highway Administration has refused to formally consider the Laughlin-Bullhead City alternative in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the agency has had to expend considerable resources explaining why it won't consider the southern route.

"I think they've had to stop and redo their thinking a couple of times," Dexter said.

Indians also have raised objections to the project. Roller said that they were only invited into the process for selecting a site for the new bridge over the Colorado one year ago -- a decade after discussions began on the project, and after Sugarloaf was already picked as the primary option.

"We approached them late in the process," Roller said. "That was our fault, not theirs."

Roller said the agency has agreed to continue "full consultation" with the Las Vegas Indian Center, which is representing Indians on the bridge project.

Roller, choosing his words carefully, said full consultation does not mean that Indians can stop the project. It means that the agency will keep them informed and will try to mitigate any cultural impact the project might have, he said.

Tribes are frustrated with the lack of consultation early in the project, said John Lewis, director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona.

Lewis said consultation came after President Clinton issued a directive calling for "full consultation" between tribal governments and federal agencies working on projects that affect Indians.

The tribes in Nevada and Arizona also are concerned that the project will apparently go forward despite their concerns, he said. But Lewis also said tribal representatives from both states will fully participate in discussions to mitigate any impact and reach a compromise where possible.

Despite the efforts of opponents and concerns of the tribes, the project should take a step forward next month when the Federal Highway Administration issues the Final Environmental Impact Statement.

When the impact statement is released, environmentalists and the general public will have 30 days to comment. Design work could begin early next year.

The federal engineers working on the project said they will mitigate the impact of a new bridge bypassing Hoover Dam, but they also believe that the bridge ultimately will benefit the dam, both practically by lessoning traffic and aesthetically.

But Dexter and others remain unconvinced.

"I love Lake Mead," Dexter said. "I don't want to see the lake trashed out by a four-lane road."

Mixed feelings

Visitors to the dam have mixed feelings about the proposed bridge.

"I don't like the idea," said Alexis Davis of Arizona. "I like being able to see the cliffs. It would compromise the attraction of this scenic place."

But Kevin Brewer of Las Vegas said the Hoover Dam construction has already changed the natural environment and that more work wouldn't matter.

And Erin Jutila of Anaheim, Calif., said she'd be happy to get an alternate route.

"Every time I pass through, the traffic is snarled," she said. "These are dangerous roads. I think it's a good thing."

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