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November 21, 2014

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Transportation:

New interstate freeway could mean riches for Las Vegas, but it’ll cost you

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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.

Here’s a pitch for you, Las Vegas: A shiny new interstate freeway snaking from Mexico to Canada that intersects with Las Vegas.

It could bring jobs, new businesses and more tourism, and reduce traffic congestion in the region.

What’s more, business executives and labor union leaders agree, as do Democrats and Republicans, that the project should happen.

The new road could make Las Vegas a transportation hub where freight would move to and from other major cities on interstates 15 and 11. Boosters for the project say that building I-11 would immediately bring construction jobs to Nevada.

In the short term, it would connect Phoenix and Las Vegas, the two largest metropolitan areas without an interstate highway to connect them.

“The Southwest is the fastest-growing region, and we need that infrastructure to keep up with that growth,” said Sondra Rosenberg, project manager for the I-11 project at the Nevada Department of Transportation. “We see this as a huge opportunity to look at the big picture.”

Upon completion, the new interstate would make the Las Vegas Valley ripe for new logistics-related businesses or manufacturers seeking easy access to diverse markets in the West, said Tina Quigley, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada.

Although the plan would take decades to complete, the earliest stages could break ground next year when the Nevada Department of Transportation and the RTC begin construction on the Boulder City Bypass that would route traffic around Boulder City, easing congestion while expediting transit through Southern Nevada.

If it seems like there’s a hidden catch to this positive news, however, now would be a good time to recite your favorite saying about some things being too good to be true.

None of this gets done without hundreds of millions of dollars that the RTC doesn’t have. That means Southern Nevadans would be on the hook for the bulk of the $350 million Boulder City Bypass tab in the form of higher county gas taxes.

The RTC has entrusted its fortunes to the Clark County Commission, the seven-member body that will likely vote next month on whether to tie the gas tax to inflation. Such a move would increase the gas tax by about 3 cents a year, resulting in the average motorist paying about $16 more for gasoline every year until 2016, when voters can decide to freeze the tax or maintain its link to inflation.

The money would pay for the bypass, among other projects.

No gas tax? No bypass.

A lack of a Boulder City Bypass means any freight moving from ports in Mexico would chug through stoplight after stoplight, giving truck drivers ample time to take in the scenery in Boulder City while sitting at red lights.

“That cannot be the thoroughfare for trade from Mexico,” Quigley said.

If the gas tax gains approval, Quigley said, the project would go out to bid next year and the three-year construction project could commence in autumn 2014. Its completion would bring the interstate to the Arizona border, where the Arizona Department of Transportation is working to create an interstate-level connector from the Nevada border to Phoenix.

The project also needs a little federal help.

When legislators return to Washington, D.C., from an August break, members of Congress from Nevada and Arizona will meet to discuss federal funding for I-11.

The newly formed Interstate 11 Caucus includes all four Nevada delegates and five of Arizona’s nine.

“There’s a lot of mutual interest in seeing the project, and I wanted to make sure there was bipartisan support,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., who leads the group with Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz.

They plan to convene Sept. 18 in Washington for a meeting with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce to chat about ways to collaboratively promote the project.

Last year, Congress approved an official designation for I-11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix, meaning legislators now need to look at the next steps.

“Funding for rights of way, design and ultimately construction is what’s needed to create I-11,” Horsford said.

Since the designation last year, representatives at the chamber say they’ve seen a lot more activity and interest in the project.

A bi-state Interstate 11 Coalition that has business, elected and civic leaders on its board has tried to recruit powerful allies to champion the project.

The Nevada board members are cheerleading for the fuel tax indexing proposal before the Clark County Commission, and the Arizona contingent will make a similar push for funding when the Arizona Legislature convenes in January, said Scott Higginson, executive director for the coalition.

Nevada legislators won’t need to approve any new money when they convene in 2015 if Clark County approves fuel tax indexing, said Brian McAnallen, vice president of government affairs at the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.

The actual cost of the I-11 project remains up in the air. But despite a cost that could mean more potential tax increases, the project’s chief advocates say they haven’t encountered much opposition.

“I have not heard from a single member, anybody, who has any concern or disparaging comments about I-11 at all,” McAnallen said.

The project’s supporters say the interstate will provide jobs while also diversifying the Las Vegas economy.

They see Las Vegas benefiting when workers finish widening the Panama Canal and Mexican deep-water ports begin to receive ship traffic destined for U.S. markets.

“The more that we’ve got goods available, the more that we have an ease of transportation available, the more that businesses that rely on those goods can grow their businesses,” Quigley said. “So it just becomes a domino effect.”

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