The dam road

The planned fall opening of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge isn't all good news for Nevada.

The spectacular span, 900 feet above the Colorado River, is expected to start carrying vehicles in about 10 weeks. It will significantly shorten the driving time from Las Vegas to Arizona by eliminating much of the winding route that bottlenecks at the dam, where wandering tourists can bring traffic to a dead stop.

But cars and trucks entering Nevada from Arizona will run smack into a Las Vegas traffic jam after crossing the arch. Nevada has made few improvements to the stretch of U.S. Highway 93 that connects to the bridge, which means northbound traffic will quickly merge from two lanes into one when it reaches the Hacienda Hotel.

Currently, about 14,000 vehicles per day cross Hoover Dam. Big rigs, banned from the dam since 9/11, will be rolling alongside passenger cars once the bridge opens, making the congestion all the more frustrating for motorists.

Once they clear the roughly two miles of gridlock, they'll have to navigate the main drag of Boulder City before returning to highway speeds. The state lacks the funding to complete the planned Boulder City bypass highway, which would whisk bridge traffic all the way around the town, rather than through it -- if it's ever built.

Who's to blame? The scourges of federal environmental regulations and petty politics.

The Nevada Department of Transportation sought to widen the narrow stretch of highway by the Hacienda between 10 and 15 years ago, said Kent Cooper, assistant director of the state agency. But the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over land within the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, blocked the project because of environmental concerns, Mr. Cooper said.

Only recently did Park Service officials agree to let the $7 million widening project go forward.

Mr. Cooper says NDOT should begin contruction on the new lane, which will ensure Arizona traffic has two lanes all the way from Kingman to Boulder City, in eight months to a year. Once started, the improvements will take about a year.

Meanwhile, in each of the past two legislative sessions, Nevada lawmakers have rejected a bill that would allow the Boulder City bypass to be built as a toll road. The bypass is the perfect pilot project: a road to be built from scratch as an alternative to an existing, toll-free route. But instead of authorizing a road ready for nearly immediate construction, Nevada lawmakers put up a roadblock. They need to remedy that error in the 2011 session.