CARSON CITY - Built on the side of mountains, the soon-to-open $550 million Interstate 580 freeway between Reno and Washoe Valley is not only the most expensive single highway project in Nevada history, but also is destined to become one of the most scenic roads in the state.
Along the 8½-mile stretch of freeway, one can spy scenes of downtown Reno to the north, Carson City to the south and the exclusive Galena Creek development to the west, all while riding 300 feet above the valley floor.
The six-lane freeway will save Reno-to-Carson City commuters about six minutes compared with traveling along the U.S. Highway 395 surface road through Pleasant Valley.
About 25,000 vehicles a day will save those precious minutes starting around Aug. 11.
But the project has drawn criticism in recent years because of its high cost and low projected traffic numbers compared with roadways in more populous Clark County.
Dozens of surface streets in Clark County carry more vehicles a day than will I-580, according to Nevada Department of Transportation's reports.
The 25,000 projection also is the total number of vehicles that travel Sunset Road near Las Vegas Boulevard, and about one-tenth of the number traveling along Interstate 15 in downtown Las Vegas.
The new Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge at Hoover Dam bypass bridge cost $240 million and carries 15,000 vehicles a day.
But I-580 includes the 8½ miles of concrete and asphalt pavement and nine bridges, including three longer than 500 feet and one just short of the length of the 1,900-foot bypass bridge over the Colorado River.
INTERSTATE 580'S ORIGINS
The Northern Nevada freeway project was approved by the State Transportation Board chaired by Gov. Kenny Guinn, a Las Vegan, in 2003 and 2006. Four of the seven members were Southern Nevadans.
Originally, costs were expected to be under $400 million and completion was scheduled for 2009. But the roots of the project go back as far as 1957, when the freeway first was envisioned, and the 1980s when right of way purchases began.
The decision to put the freeway on a mountainside was made by the Washoe County Commission, although it would have been much cheaper to widen the existing U.S. 395 on the valley floor or build it on the Galena Creek side of the mountains.
Nevada Motor Transport Association Executive Director Paul Enos in 2007 put the freeway costs at $125 million if the Transportation Department just rebuilt the existing road on the valley floor to interstate standards.
During the freeway's construction, former Assemblywoman Chris Giunchigliani, now a Clark County commissioner, called the freeway's spectacular arch bridge over Galena Creek the "bridge to nowhere," a reference to a planned bridge to a town of 50 people in Alaska that was never built.
Numerous other areas have had "bridges to nowhere," a derisive term meant as an example of wasteful government pork barrel spending.
Ninety percent of the new freeway's costs came from federal funds.
BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS
By the time the project got to the state Transportation Board for funding, former Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt said "it was a done deal," with the alignment determined, right of way purchased and federal funding secured.
As a member of that board, she voted for the project to go forward in 2003.
But Hunt, a Las Vegas restaurant owner, emphasized in a recent interview that the completion means Carson City and Reno for the first time will be linked by an interstate freeway system.
Only four state capitals are not connected to freeways.
She predicted the freeway will lead to more economic investment in Carson City and to increased tourism.
When he was attorney general in 2003, Brian Sandoval - now the governor - also approved funding to build the freeway.
"The completion of the I-580 freeway from Reno to Washoe Lake will improve transportation in Northern Nevada and enhance quality of life for commuters," Sandoval said. "I commend the Department of Transportation for its hard work and I look forward to its ceremonial opening on (Thursday) ."
Commuters are thrilled about the bridge's opening and the prospects of saving time in their travels.
"It will make my life a whole lot easier," said Lake Tahoe motorcyclist David Michener as he stopped for food at the Old 395 Station recently. "I love it."
Chuck McCubbins said the restaurant-gas station along U.S. 395 will lose some business when the highway becomes a secondary road for Reno-Carson City travelers. His daughter owns the business.
McCubbins also said the decision to build the freeway in a wind-prone area on the side of mountains was a tremendous mistake.
"Somebody is going to go off the side," McCubbins said. "When they have a lot of accidents, they will realize they have wasted taxpayers' money.
But Pleasant Valley resident Tim Holt believes that being bypassed by most traffic will make his community the quiet little town most residents want.
He noted that the nearest exit for Pleasant Valley residents to catch the freeway is five miles away.
"We will drive on it once, check the view and let the commuters have it," Holt said.
Former state Transportation Director Tom Stephens said Las Vegans should not resent the new freeway because when it was funded, several road projects were awarded in Clark County, including the O'Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge over the Colorado River next to Hoover Dam.
The new freeway will be much safer than the old road, which largely has no divider between north and south lanes, he said.
Stephens said he witnessed three accidents himself over the years while driving along U.S. 395 between Reno and Carson City.
"No engineer in his right mind would select that (building a freeway on the side of mountains), but it was a political decision, and the decision doesn't have to be logical," said Stephens, now a retired engineer. "But we did a really good job. It is a wonderful accomplishment."
The project provided jobs for 220 workers.
BEWARE OF WINDS
Transportation Department spokesman Scott Magruder never runs out of superlatives as he hauls a reporter and photographer over the new freeway where workers are finishing the final work.
On a recent weekday, he points to the 8-foot fences designed to keep deer from jumping on the freeway and the 4-foot concrete walls to prevent cars from blowing off the pavement and sending their drivers to sure death on the valley below.
Winds had been measured as high as 90 mph during the construction phase. When they hit 30 mph, the Transportation Department may order trucks and trailers to return to the surface road far below.
Then there are the four automatic deicers that will spread a liquid saline solution on bridges when the temperature drops below 30 degrees.
The most spectacular part of the freeway is the 1,722-foot concrete bridge over Galena Creek. That is just 200 feet short of the new bridge below Hoover Dam, the one engineers consider a marvel.
The first contractor on the project, Edward Kraemer & Sons, won the contract to work on the freeway on Jan. 28, 2003. But the company balked in 2006 in completing the Galena Creek Bridge on the grounds that high winds and the bridge design made it dangerous for construction workers
That November, Fisher Sand & Gravel was awarded the contract to finish the freeway in 2006. The bridge was finished and construction techniques were altered.
One worker died during the construction. He jumped from a grader that lost its brakes, but he ended up under the grader's wheels, Magruder said.
The Transportation Department's next big roadway priority will be Project Neon, the $1.8 billion project to redesign Interstate 15 between the Spaghetti Bowl and Sahara Avenue in Las Vegas.
This series of new roads and flyovers will be built in five phases and take about five years to construct.
Transportation Board members, fearing the project's costs would deplete the department's entire annual construction budget, have been looking at unusual financing plans, such as having a company design, build and maintain the project and the state paying it off in a mortgage-type arrangement.
"We are getting money," said Magruder, encouraged by Congress' recent passage of the national transportation bill. "But we have more needs than money available."
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.