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March 4, 2015

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NDOT’s cost warning bypassed

State has put millions behind routing traffic around Boulder City despite few benefits for those costs


Sam Morris

If many in Boulder City have their way, traffic will be diverted from U.S. 93, above, around town. But a study has questioned the value of the project’s first phase.

Hoover Dam bypass bridge

If many in Boulder City have their way, traffic will be diverted from U.S. 93, above, around town. But a study has questioned the value of the project's first phase. Launch slideshow »

Start of Phase I - Foothill Drive

A Nevada Department of Transportation analysis of the proposed Boulder City Bypass concluded that the cost of building the first phase of the project would outweigh its potential benefits.

Despite reaching that conclusion in late 2007, the agency has continued to spend millions on studying and buying land for the project.

The bypass would send traffic on a 13-mile, four-lane route around the small town, from Railroad Pass to near Hoover Dam. It would also require improvements to Interstate 515 in Henderson.

The Transportation Department’s analysis looked at the project’s first phase — an extension of I-515 from Foothills Drive to Railroad Pass and construction of an interchange at Railroad Pass — and concluded it would cost $140 million to build and provide only $49 million in benefits.

Unless the department builds the remainder of the project, at an estimated cost of $500 million, the route wouldn’t attract enough traffic to warrant the freeway extension, according to the analysis.

The study was completed in late 2007, but department officials had until recently denied the Las Vegas Sun’s request for a copy.

Transportation Department Director Susan Martinovich downplayed the significance of the study and called it flawed. The analysis did not correctly estimate the number of vehicles that would take the new route versus the existing route and the complexity of the interchange that would be built at Railroad Pass, she said.

Such studies are “a tool in making a decision,” Martinovich said. “It isn’t the deciding factor.”

Boulder City has since the 1960s lobbied for the bypass and money to pay for it. But residents have an increased sense of urgency with the opening of the Colorado River bridge south of Hoover Dam scheduled for late next year. They fear the bridge will draw more traffic to U.S. Highway 93, which cuts through town.

Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, has led unsuccessful efforts in the past two legislative sessions to legalize tolls, which could help fund the bypass. A who’s who of Boulder City has also pushed for the project, including former Congressman Jon Porter and recently retired County Commissioner Bruce Woodbury.

The Transportation Department, which received a federal earmark of $34 million for the bypass, has spent more than $10 million on environmental studies, designs and land for the project.

Martinovich defended the spending.

“There is a lot of time to make decisions about whether the projects move forward,” she said. If the project doesn’t end up moving forward, staff could “turn around and sell the right-of-way.”

Martinovich added that she didn’t know why her department hasn’t performed a new cost-benefit analysis of the project.

The 2007 Legislature passed the law requiring the Transportation Department to perform a cost-benefit analysis on all projects estimated to cost more than $25 million. The studies compare potential benefits — miles traveled, travel time, accident costs, fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and other factors — associated with building and not building a project.

Critics say the studies became necessary after the department committed to its Interstate 580 project — connecting Reno and Carson City with nine bridges — before any analysis was released so it could be compared with other transportation needs in the state. The freeway, at $600 million, is the most expensive in the department’s history.

Paul Enos, president of the Nevada Motor Transport Association, which represents truckers and opposes the Boulder City Bypass, dismissed Martinovich’s contention that the department’s analysis of the project is flawed.

“Apparently, every analysis out of NDOT is flawed when it doesn’t meet their political purposes,” he said.

Boulder City officials said they were unaware of the department’s analysis of the project until the Sun contacted them. After reviewing it, they said it didn’t take full account of the effect additional traffic will have on the city once the Colorado River bridge opens.

The bridge’s opening will allow the return of tractor trailers to portions of U.S. 93 for the first time since the 9/11 attacks prompted officials to ban them from the highway’s route across Hoover Dam. Officials estimate 2,000 to 4,000 trucks will use the route daily.

Mayor Roger Tobler also noted the study does not include the cost to Boulder City of providing police and emergency services along the highway.

Boulder City Police Chief Thomas Finn said one accident on U.S. 93 could tie up his entire department.

Tobler said few people outside of Boulder City care about the inconvenience residents will face during traffic jams or the effect it will have on the city’s finances, but they should.

“If people think this is just to benefit Boulder, it’s not,” the mayor said. “These are state highways. This is not just a BC problem. This is a trade route. We get a lot of trucks coming through here.”

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