Boulder City Bypass project protects tortoises

White men must not be the only creatures who can’t jump.

Fortunately for Steve Cooke, the desert tortoise doesn’t have much of a vertical leap, either.

As chief of environmental services for the Nevada Department of Transportation, Cooke has the responsibility of ensuring the state’s environment isn’t damaged when a new roadway is constructed. So this month his focus is on the desert tortoise, a species more endangered – with apologies to Woody Harrelson’s 1992 film character Billy Hoyle – than white men who CAN jump.

Cooke’s role comes into play as Phase 1 of the 15-mile Boulder City bypass project gets under way on a short opening stretch of virgin land between the Foothills Drive exit on U.S. Highway 95 in south Henderson and where the new road will meet U.S. 95 to the southwest of Boulder City.

The 2.75-mile expanse soon will be enclosed by a fence during construction to keep the desert tortoise from plodding in. While the length might be somewhat daunting, not so the height.

Eighteen inches.

Eighteen inches of tightly meshed metal fence that will prevent even juvenile tortoises from crawling in.

"Because they’re an en­dangered species, we have to take certain precautions to protect them," Cooke says. "They can’t jump two feet."

The opening phase’s environmental safety work extends beyond the desert tortoise to select desert plants in the area – at a combined protection/salvage cost of $1.5 million.

Before the first bulldozers roll in, a number of cactuses and yuccas have to be rolled out, replanted elsewhere, only to be returned as landscaping or erosion control when the opening phase of the bypass project is completed.

‘IT’S NICE TO GET IT STARTED’

Make no mistake: Despite what you might read or hear about the fitness, financing and future of the bypass project’s more contentious second phase – 12 additional miles of a four-lane, limited-access freeway that, if constructed, would permit motorists to skip driving through Boulder City – the first phase is being built.

Tentative completion date: late 2017 or early 2018. Or so hopes Tony Lorenzi, the state Transportation Department’s project manager.

Seventy-five percent of the land has cleared right-of-way acquisition, with only three parcels left to be purchased through contentious condemnation in the courts. The full land acquisition is coming at a cost of $20 million to $30 million, according to documents provided by the transportation agency.

As acquisition wraps up, the second "package" of the opening phase begins, first with the environmental safeguards and followed in late summer or early fall by the start of construction on a frontage road and numerous utility relocations – everything from moving towers belonging to the Western Area Power Administration to relocating conduits of the Colorado River Commission, Southwest Gas, NV Energy, Las Vegas Water District, AT&T, Cox Communications, etc.

"Literally a dozen, if not more," Lorenzi says as he ticks off the more notable names.

The relocation of the utilities and the construction of the frontage road is a 12- to 18-month segment of the project, estimated to cost between $20 million and $22 million.

From there, construction begins on the mainline – or new roadway – with Package 3 going from Foothills Drive to the Railroad Pass interchange, with the mainline being built under the existing railroad bridge, and followed by Package 4, which is the extension of the mainline from the interchange to U.S. 95.

Package 5, the construction of the mainline as an underpass to a reinforced, at-grade Railroad Pass bridge, likely would be built at the same time as Package 3.

The combined cost of the mainline construction would come in at between $90 million and $110 million, bringing the total price tag for Phase 1 to somewhere between $110 million and $140 million.

The state transportation agency, which gets its funding from the federal government and a percentage of state gasoline taxes, is paying for the project.

One of the highlights of Phase 1 will be an artistic history lesson on the construction of Hoover Dam that will be chiseled into a 1,200-foot-long retaining wall along the route. The rendering will start with the migration of the ’31ers to Southern Nevada, to the pouring of the dam’s forms, to the dangerous work of the dam’s high-scalers, to a rendering of the completed project.

"I feel really good about this getting started," Lorenzi says. "There’s been a lot of anticipation.

"There’s been some delays for multiple reasons" – funding and right-of-way issues, construction logistics – "but it’s nice to get it started."

PHASE 2 CONTENTIOUS

Lorenzi and Cooke recently appeared at an open house at Boulder City High School to explain the Nevada Department of Transportation’s work on the initial phase of the two-phase project.

Most of the community’s concerns, however, regarded Phase 2, the approximately 12-mile stretch that will connect the southwest portion of Phase 1 at U.S. 95 to the recently completed interchange at state Route 172, the road to Hoover Dam.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is developing Phase 2, with the likelihood of establishing the uninterrupted 12-mile stretch as a toll road to cover the construction funding of between $330 million and $350 million. Early discussion said the toll could start at $2.25 per passenger vehicle, with the price going up for multi-axle trucks.

A 2012 study announced at the meeting said 44 percent of drivers would choose to use the toll road, with the remainder of motorists continuing to drive through Boulder City.

Some attendees were upset at the prospect of almost half of the area’s current traffic being diverted from businesses in the nongaming community, while others saw the need to reduce city traffic, which can become heavy with travelers going between Las Vegas and Phoenix during the spring and summer months.

But with funding of Phase 2 yet to be determined and construction still years off, if it happens at all, there’s plenty of time to ease concerns and massage egos.

Meanwhile, Phase 1 is being built. And even if there is no Phase 2, there will be a fresh stretch of roadway that will connect to U.S. 93 into Boulder City via a high-speed flyover and to U.S. 95 via graded ramps.

"Even though it’s a short distance, there’s still a huge amount of work to get (to completion)," Cooke, the state transportation agency’s lead environmentalist, says as tortoise fencing goes up this month.

"Once things start," Lorenzi chimes in, "we build a lot of momentum quickly.

"There’s nothing I like better than to see something getting built," he adds. "It’s progress. The public is getting what it’s paying for."

Contact reporter Joe Hawk at jhawk@review journal.com or 702-387-2912. Follow him on Twitter: @RJroadwarrior.

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