Bypass bridge traffic ties up Boulder City

Boulder City is known as a peaceful town that residents cherish and outsiders visit to escape the madness of the Las Vegas Valley.

Recently, the town has been stricken with some madness of its own.

Trapped in their neighborhoods by gridlock on Highway 93, some local motorists have converted bike paths into makeshift roads to get downtown. They’re frustrated by the backups, so running red lights has become typical.

Firefighters have responded to a rising number of accidents. Emergency crews have watched their response times increase.

The O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge was sold as a quick and safe replacement of the route over Hoover Dam. But ask frequent travelers, Boulder City business owners, residents and commuters, and they’ll tell you the $240 million span has turned the town upside-down.

"This is not a problem we’re surprised by," Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler said Wednesday. "We spent all this effort building this amazing bridge, and it simply moved the traffic problem once at the dam to Boulder City."

For more than a decade, city officials have pushed the state and federal government for a bypass that would stream traffic around the city along a continuous four-lane highway.

The project was stalled by a combination of strong opposition and a lack of funding.

Vehicles traveling between Phoenix and Las Vegas, the two largest neighboring metropolises in the United States not connected by a full-fledged interstate, are pinched from four lanes into two, creating a severe bottleneck.

Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, announced plans Wednesday to file a state of emergency with the Federal Highway Administration to persuade the agency to ban tractor-trailers from the new Hoover Dam bypass bridge until traffic problems can be resolved.

Snow said he tried to visit his mother in Boulder City twice in the past week but turned around both times after he hit congestion as far west as College Drive in Henderson.

"We are experiencing a worse problem than we had before the bridge was open," Snow said. "We can’t deal with a bridge that leads to one lane."

Trucks were prohibited from crossing the dam after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because of security concerns, but they returned to the Highway 93 route when the bridge opened in October.

The return of the trucks after nine years is causing the bulk of the problem, and Tobler wants to force them to the more circuitous route through Laughlin until Highway 93 is sufficiently improved or a bypass interstate is built.

Rudy Malfabon, the Nevada Department of Transportation’s deputy director for Southern Nevada, said his agency plans to widen the one-lane stretch of the highway between Lake Shore Drive and the Hacienda hotel-casino next year. The link between the bridge and Boulder City was not a state priority because of the plans to build the bypass.

"Now the pressure is on us to do something about this part of the road," Malfabon said.

In an attempt to strip away negativity attached to the bypass project, Snow said that during the next legislative session, he will actively advocate for Interstate 11, which would follow the same route as the proposed bypass.

The highway would be part of the corridor dubbed CANAMEX because it would provide a commerce route between Canada and Mexico.

"We need Interstate 11," Snow said, noting that failing to provide easy access to Southern Nevada will further hurt the economy.

Carrie Houtman understands how traffic patterns affect businesses.

She and her husband own the Boulder Bean coffee shop on Nevada Highway at the entrance to town. She anticipated a boost in business when the trucks were allowed on the route through the city.

Instead, she watches the gridlock from her shop, which has become significantly quieter.

"It’s been horrible," she said. "When the parking lot starts, our business is gone. Nobody will let anybody turn in; and if they do come in, they can’t get back out. I would be doing good business, but nobody wants to get out of line."

Houtman doesn’t blame the trucks; she said a fraction of the vehicles are tractor-trailers. What she does know is that the problem is the talk of the town and her business suffers even when the highway isn’t clogged.

"Everybody is talking about it and saying it’s so bad, so even when it’s not, people think it is and go the back way out on Veterans (Memorial Drive)," she said. "I’ve lost business because of that, too."

Tobler said the turn lanes where Highway 93 heads left toward the dam contribute to the problem.

The turn pockets are 600 feet long, which is about 300 feet too short, the mayor said. Trucks and vehicles fill the lanes and back up into the through lanes, which blocks traffic going into Boulder City.

Motorists who realize they also can access the bridge by driving through town and winding back down to the highway are congesting the narrow downtown streets.

On Wednesday, customers at local businesses helped one another back out of their parking spaces by standing in the road to create a gap in the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Douglas Broadbent, who operates an American National insurance agency on the main road, said he and fellow business owners once joked that traffic in Boulder City was bad when it took them two minutes to get out of their parking lots.

On Tuesday, it took Broadbent 10 minutes, and he wasn’t laughing.

"We never had a traffic problem in that area," he said. "People used to have no problem coming up here to my office. When they came in yesterday, they were just livid."

The drive from the entrance to Boulder City to the bridge might take 15 minutes one day and 45 minutes the next, he said.

Snow plans to install three real-time cameras so that motorists can log onto the computer to check out traffic before they hit the road.

Emergency personnel have been called to more accidents on the freeway, and Tobler said the calls are draining the town’s budget.

On top of that, the congestion makes it difficult to respond in a timely manner to routine calls, said Boulder City Fire Chief Kevin Nicholson.

"It slows us down. It prevents us from going where we need to go," Nicholson said.

Ed Rogich, who frequently travels to Flagstaff, Ariz., was shocked at the line of cars headed to Arizona when he returned to Las Vegas on Tuesday. The traffic, he said, was just as bad as it was when vehicles had to negotiate hairpin turns to cross the dam.

"All the way to Railroad Pass it was bumper to bumper," Rogich said. "People were trying to turn around, going into the desert. I couldn’t believe it."

The offramp from Highway 93 to the old road down to the dam was packed and blocking motorists trying to cross the bridge, Rogich said.

He suspected the backup might have been in part a result of the tourists visiting the dam and checking out the new bridge.

But Tobler said this problem is not only during the holidays or weekends.

"Since the bridge opened, we’ve had severe traffic problems," the mayor said.

The bridge is attractive, unless you live in Boulder City.

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@ or 702-387-2904.

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