Is traffic on Interstate 15 really going to move at the pace of molasses for an entire month?
If the first week was any indication, the answer is yes. But an unexpected ingredient called rain threw a hitch into what is already a recipe for disaster, the around-the-clock repaving project and accompanying lane closures on the state's busiest freeway.
So, the answer might really be maybe. Perhaps the worst came first, or maybe this resurfacing endeavor will be as painful as it was all last week. The rain derailed traffic experts trying to survey congested areas and make adjustments.
"The rain affected the traffic the way rain will affect the traffic on the freeway without construction," said Brian Hoeft, director of the Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation. "When it rains, people just drive badly."
When it rains, it is also challenging to determine whether traffic signals need to be adjusted on thoroughfares that motorists are using as alternate routes. Hoeft drove the valley to see which arterials motorists were opting for and whether the green lights should be lengthened.
Slower drivers and flooded lanes triggered abnormal traffic, so the typical number of vehicles might not be making it through the light.
Hoeft's agency is closely monitoring traffic, but clearly last week wasn't a great guide. On Monday, commuters might have seemed to forget about the repaving work, which is happening in both directions between Tropicana Avenue and the Spaghetti Bowl, day and night. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we were smacked with rainstorms.
Those of you who travel Interstate 15 regularly might find Hoeft's observations helpful in the coming weeks. The northbound lanes started backing up around 7:30 a.m., and that congestion was consistent until it loosened around 8 p.m. The freeway is particularly bad at Desert Inn Road, when it is pinched from four lanes to three. We all know, it doesn't take long for that backup to stretch to Russell Road.
Problems in the southbound lanes occur just south of the Spaghetti Bowl, where motorists from North Las Vegas meet Summerlin commuters and everybody carries on down I-15 together. That area is congested between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m., then again around 5 p.m. It's not nearly as consistent as the northbound freeway, most likely because of the lane reduction headed north.
So now that you know when it is best to avoid the interstate, you may wonder what other options are available for north-south arterials. Really, not many when it comes to roads that are near the freeway and those routes that don't jog back and forth or ferry motorists directly into a dead-end sign.
Hoeft suggested taking Main Street and Frank Sinatra Drive on the east side of the freeway. Eastern Avenue and Maryland Parkway are also viable options, but they have not yet been tested. After one day of the new restrictions, folks who live in Green Valley and work near downtown Las Vegas decided to drive a few miles out of their way to Interstate 215 and U.S. Highway 95.
On the west side, Hoeft suggests taking Decatur, Jones or Rainbow boulevards. Another option is catching Industrial Road downtown and cruising Industrial/Dean Martin Drive all the way south.
"We've been watching the Joneses and Rainbows to see if there is enough traffic to warrant adjusting the traffic signals," Hoeft said.
Heed Hoeft's advice because, rain or shine, I predict the next few weeks will be uglier than last. The first week consisted of preparing for the repaving by sealing cracks and repairing potholes. While workers were not always present, orange barrels were. That is because the sealant takes time to dry; otherwise it will stick to and potentially ruin tires.
Next week Fisher Sand & Gravel Co. will roll out the heavy equipment for the resurfacing job. That means at least one and perhaps two lanes on the freeway could be closed at any given time.
The lane restrictions are in place from 7 p.m. Sundays until 7 a.m. Thursdays, which has prompted some questions about why this work can't be done on weekends when fewer commuters are on the road. Is the Nevada Department of Transportation more readily willing to inconvenience locals over tourists?
"To impact tourist traffic is a big deal," NDOT spokeswoman Michelle Booth said. "We decided it was best to work during the week rather than the weekends, because valley drivers know the detours. They know their way around town. Tourists don't."
That said, Booth also noted that the department was willing to work on weekends, but the additional cost of paying employees weekend hours would have inflated the price of the $6 million project.
"It is impacting the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday commute, and we realize that is really annoying," Booth said. "But we trust they know another way to work."
As a side note, it is not only motorists suffering. The Regional Transportation Commission reported that its express lines -- including the airport express that departs from the Westcliff Drive park and ride -- are experiencing delays averaging eight minutes. If you are looking to take the express to McCarran International Airport, play it safe and take an earlier bus.
Major work on projects like this is traditionally done during overnight hours to reduce the inconvenience to commuters. Booth said that was not possible because the repaving would have extended into colder months. The overlay is made from recycled tires, which is ultra-sensitive to temperatures. Besides, why stretch out the nightmare?
"If we just closed one lane of traffic at a time, it would have been three months of inconvenience," Booth said. "Our method was taking off the Band-Aid all at once."
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