Two decades for an interstate? Nuts to that!


It took the United States and its allies less than four years to win World War II.

It took us less than seven years from the time President John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech calling for a moon landing until Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface.

We can float a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier - one of the most technologically complex machines ever - in about seven years.

So why is it going to take between 10 and 20 years to upgrade the highway between Las Vegas and Phoenix to interstate status?  

We took one small step on the road to building what will ultimately be designated Interstate 11 last week, when Congress passed a $120 billion highway bill that designated the corridor as the site of a future interstate. (The road is essentially built now, and exists as U.S. Highway 93.)

But exactly zero dollars from that bill will fund Interstate 11. The money comes later.

The Review-Journal's Steve Tetreault reports that during the next 10 to 20 years, "federal, state and local interests must locate billions of dollars for the endeavor for which there is not yet a solid cost estimate."

Why so long? Transportation expert Tom Skancke, who has been working on the Interstate 11 project for years, says the use of federal dollars implicates the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, which can take between five and eight years to complete. Once that's done, the design of the project takes another three to five years, Skancke says.

That's about 10 years before the first earthmover gets to work.

But what if we decided to do it more quickly? What if we said, just this once, we're going to do the entire thing in five years?  

Impossible? It took 35 years to build the initial portion of the interstate highway system, which now has more than 47,000 miles. We're only talking about the 286 miles between Las Vegas and Phoenix, expanding a road that already exists.

And now's the time: This is a road we need, to ferry tourists and goods between Phoenix and parts south to Las Vegas, and beyond. (The highway will eventually form part of a link running from Mexico through Canada.) There are unemployed construction workers who need jobs.

Yes, there are hurdles. Republicans almost derailed the simple designation of I-11 in the bill as an "earmark," although no money was being spent. But so what? The Constitution gives Congress the power to spend money building roads. And somebody's going to decide where it will be spent, whether a member of Congress or an employee of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Earmark phobias shouldn't stand in the way of a vital project such as this.  

Second, the environmental objections: This project is unique in that we are not plowing into virgin desert, but expanding a road that's already there. Surely, we can speed up a review of such a project?

Third, Nevada's transportation department has experimented with the more efficient design/build concept, which shortens the time it takes to build road projects. Couldn't we try that for I-11?

Fourth, the money: This is where we're going to have to use our congressional muscle. This is a federal project, and federal money should fund it. (The truly awful idea of a toll road around Boulder City as a "public-private" partnership should be scrapped - this will be a public road, paid for by the public.)

Five years is surely an ambitious schedule, and there are some big hurdles. But if we had the will to do it, they could be overcome.

It's not like we're fighting a world war or landing on the moon, after all.

 

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.