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November 22, 2014

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Bypass could end traffic over dam for good

The managers of Hoover Dam are considering closing the top of the dam to all motor vehicles once the alternate route over the Colorado River is completed.

The 3.5-mile, $234 million Hoover Dam bypass, which includes a river-spanning bridge, is scheduled for completion in mid-2007.

In the planning, design and environmental-review documents, the plan has always been to open the new bridge to all traffic, especially the heavy commercial trucking that once took a toll on the dam road.

Bob Walsh, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Reclamation, said that plan still has traffic crossing Hoover Dam, but that could change.

"There have been some internal discussions about whether that needs to be changed or not," he said. "Security needs have changed. There might be some potential cost savings because of reduced maintenance."

It would be easier to protect the dam if vehicles were banned from crossing it, he said.

Vehicles also take a physical toll on the 75-year-old structure, officials said.

The Bureau of Reclamation, which has jurisdiction over the dam itself, now restricts commercial trucking over the dam in a security move instituted following the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Walsh emphasized that the new plan would not close the dam to visitors, and that any change in the policy for traffic over the dam is in the very early stages.

"There hasn't been any decision made about it, and there wouldn't be a decision made until after substantial discussions with state transportation folks and others who might have an interest," Walsh said.

The response from federal and state agencies to a policy change was a collective shrug.

"I haven't heard any groundswell of anxiety over here," said John Semmens, project manager at the Arizona Transportation Research Center, an arm of the Arizona Department of Transportation.

The Federal Highway Administration, which is overseeing construction of the bypass with a mix of federal and state funds, said once the bridge is built, traffic over the dam is strictly up to the Bureau of Reclamation.

"We don't have jurisdiction there," said Dave Zanetell, the highway administration's project manager for the bypass. "The Hoover Dam bypass facility, its intent is to accommodate the movement of people and goods through the corridor. We have no interest or concern with the dam itself."

Nevada and Arizona transportation officials echoed those comments.

"The plan all along was to make the current roadway into more of a location strictly for tourists," said Matt Burdick, Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman.

He said his agency would likely support eliminating traffic over the dam if that's what the Bureau of Reclamation decided to do.

"As long as the bridge is in place, we're set," Burdick said.

Burdick's counterpart on this side of the river agreed.

"It's up to them (the Bureau of Reclamation), not to us," said Scott Magruder, Nevada Department of Transportation. "Our goal right now is to finish the bridge."

Roxanne Dey, a spokeswoman with the National Park Service's Lake Mead National Recreation Area, said her agency does not have an official stance on any general prohibition on traffic over the dam.

She said, however, the park service might not want to see the road over the dam eliminated. Dey said that might be important, especially for park rangers, if an accident or some other event blocked travel across the bridge.

"We would certainly consider, or ask the bureau to consider, the flexibility to leave the dam open to some vehicular traffic," Dey said. "We would certainly want the option to reroute folks, including our employees."

Dey added that from a personal perspective, she has seen pedestrians and vehicles commingling, sometimes uncomfortably, on top of the dam.

Others share similar concerns. Richard Ramcilio, marketing director of the Grand Canyon Tour Co. in Las Vegas, said he frequently sees tourists walking into the road.

"It's the only major highway that I know of where a pedestrian can stop interstate transportation," he said.

Ramcilio is not opposed to taking vehicles off the dam, and he said he is aware that the Bureau of Reclamation is at least beginning to talk about the idea. He said closing the road wouldn't affect his 13-year-old business, but any logistical change to the way tours are operated could have an impact.

"There's been different scenarios on whether they'll allow coaches to go to the dam for tours," he said. "There will be tours. They may not be like they currently are."

Walsh said it is too early to speculate on how the dam will look and operate after the bridge is up. He noted that his agency, in the hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, closed the bridge to all traffic, and could do so again.

"If we go to a red alert, we would close it in a heartbeat, but that's a special circumstance," Walsh said. "We have the right to close it (permanently), but we would never do that without discussion with both departments of transportation and the state agencies that have an interest.

"If we were going to close it, we would do some sort of public process. It's probably a little bit early to make a call on that."

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