It's never an easy decision to embark on an expensive transportation project, but it can be especially challenging during tough economic times.
Taxpayers balk when the projects seem unnecessary and question why the money wasn't invested on other causes such as the state's broken down education system.
All that weighed on Eduardo Miranda, a senior project manager for the Nevada Department of Transportation, when he ultimately decided to move forward with the Cactus Avenue interchange at Interstate 15.
When the project was first considered years ago, the valley was still booming and Las Vegas Boulevard just south of Silverado Ranch was expected to be the next resort corridor, essentially the South Strip. Then the recession hit, development stalled and people began moving out.
It was something never before experienced by transportation planners in Southern Nevada.
"Twenty years ago, we couldn't have estimated the amount of growth we've had," Miranda said. "We had to forecast traffic with 6,000 people moving here a month."
Faced with a bleak economy, Miranda had to decide whether it was worth $74 million to build a new east-west arterial in Cactus Avenue; whether there would even be people around to use it -- traffic flow in the area had decreased by 24 percent.
Still, his answer was yes and here's why: Nearly 70 percent of the money was through a federal grant designed to improve the economy, and if Nevada nixed the interchange that money, and the jobs that accompany it, would have gone to another state.
"We don't want to lose that money, we want to keep it in Nevada," Miranda said. "It's a good thing in boosting the economy."
Also, even though tourism was down, the amount of traffic coming from Southern California had decreased very little.
Some residents might argue that the extension of Cactus Avenue is no longer needed, Miranda said, adding "except for the people who drive in that area."
Homeowners in the master planned communities of Mountain's Edge, Southern Highlands and Rhodes Ranch are all for it. Residents of the more rural community to the east of I-15 were understandably opposed to a project that would filter more traffic into their neighborhoods.
The Enterprise area in the southwestern corner of the valley has grown from roughly 5,500 residents to more than 150,000 in the past decade and in a six-mile stretch of Interstate 15, there are three arterials -- Silverado Ranch Boulevard, Blue Diamond Road and St. Rose Parkway -- that carry motorists over the highway.
But most of those roads do not extend as far west as Cactus eventually will. Clark County, when funding becomes available, is planning to build an overpass over the railroads to stretch Cactus all the way to Rainbow Boulevard.
Cactus is far enough south that residential and commercial developments are far from dense, giving engineers plenty of room to extend and widen the road. That hasn't been the case with other arterials, such as Silverado Ranch and the north-south running Decatur Boulevard, which are limited by existing developments.
"The connection of Cactus Avenue over I-15 will provide commuters another option for east-west travel in a transportation network that is lagging to 'catch up' with the tremendous development that was experienced in the south and southwest portion of the Las Vegas Valley," a Nevada Department of Transportation report says.
Even when they catch up, transportation planners have seen they quickly fall back behind. Take Silverado Ranch Boulevard, which only a decade ago was basically a desolate patch of desert between Las Vegas and Jean. An interchange was built, and in no time, it approached capacity.
Remember all those fender-benders on the Interstate 15 exit lane?
The reason is residents who live in the southern end of the valley really have few choices but to hop on Interstate 15 if they want to access areas across town. The combination of commuters and tourists arriving from California has caused backups and a fair amount of accidents. During a two-year period ending in December 2008, there were a total of 698 wrecks on the stretch of I-15 between St. Rose and Interstate 215. Good for cheesy-television-advertising attorneys, bad for tourism.
The problem triggered the decision to widen the interstate from six lanes to 10. It also confirmed Miranda's beliefs that an additional interchange was needed to give residents an option.
Projecting the need for such massive transportation endeavors is somewhat of a gamble. But in this case, the transportation agency is confident that even if the valley's growth doesn't pick up again for a few years, the new road is still needed.
"I'm always looking ahead trying to be ready and prepared. If I don't look ahead, I do not serve Las Vegas well," Miranda said. "I see this as a wonderful benefit to the community."
The little pink flags that mark the vacant land off the east side of the freeway designate the planned location of the interchange. Next summer, the project will go out to bid. Miranda estimates it will take about a year and a half to build.
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