In the end, drivers can trust what they see

May 17 was a day Susan McCall couldn’t wait to arrive.

McCall lives in the northwest Las Vegas Valley, but works in the central valley at University Medical Center. Her workday commute got seriously strained when U.S. Highway 95 ramps at Rancho Drive near downtown Las Vegas were closed for a $63 million renovation in January.

That project cut off her most direct link between play and pay, forcing her to find detours around the work. But on May 17, the interchange finally reopened for her northbound afternoon commute home.

"I see the onramp. I was so impressed. It’s nice. It’s big and wide," McCall, 51, recalled last week. "Then I got on it. Oh my God, it’s terrible."

That’s because the onramp from Rancho to northbound U.S. 95 didn’t put drivers on U.S. 95. Not right away, anyway.

The ramp led drivers onto a patched-together frontage road. To get onto U.S. 95, drivers had to go along the temporary access road and through stoplights at Valley View Boulevard and Decatur Boulevard before being deposited onto the freeway somewhere around Jones Boulevard.

That’s about three miles up the road from the onramp.

"What a freaking disaster. And still is. I refuse to take it. You’re basically on a one-lane service drive," McCall said. "They just shouldn’t have opened it like that. It’s embarrassing."

It really was. I was one of those drivers shocked to find the roundabout route, which was seriously backed up the first day. Stuck on the frontage road, I stewed as I saw U.S. 95 traffic whizzing past, thinking that if I’d stuck with my alternate route, I’d already be halfway home.

Other drivers didn’t wait, crossing over a coned-off buffer zone from the frontage road onto the freeway, an amazingly stupid and dangerous maneuver.

I felt like the victim of a bait-and-switch. Something the Nevada Department of Transportation had billed as "light at the end of the tunnel" in its $500 million-plus widening of U.S. 95 from downtown and through the northwest turned into just another dashed expectation.

And, judging by the rants I often find in my voice mail and e-mail in-boxes, U.S. 95 commuters aren’t the only ones who’ve felt duped in recent years by projects that fell short of what was promised or expected. (Commuters on Interstate 15 and the Las Vegas Beltway, you can put your hands down now. I see you.)

I can deal with imperfection. But, jeez, at least let me know ahead of time what to expect!

Bob McKenzie, a Transportation Department spokesman, said drivers like me should’ve expected the surprise. He swears he told me of the goofy alignment days before the opening, when I interviewed him for a story previewing the ramp’s return.

I trust Bob, but I have no record of that, other than a general boilerplate reminder that U.S. 95 through the northwest will still be a work zone through November, and that there will be inconveniences as a result.

Even if you’d assume McKenzie’s warning was somehow lost in translation, I wonder how that could be. Seems to me that a warning that the Rancho ramp at U.S. 95 won’t get you on U.S. 95 at Rancho should be made crystal-clear. Kinda like letting tourists know that in Vegas, we tend to gamble a bit.

(On the Nevada Department of Transportation’s road work information Web site, at www.nevadadot.com/traveler/construction_projects/construction/district.asp?district=1, an advisory warns the Rancho ramp is combined with the Valley View exit ramp through mid-month. McKenzie said the warning has been there for some time, though I don’t recall seeing it prior to the Rancho ramp’s reopening. And I check that link almost every day.)

But in all fairness, McKenzie and his lot have a tough job in pleasing anybody.

On one hand, they’re trying to open new sections of roads and ramps as soon as possible. On the other hand, they need to find ways to plug those finished pieces into an incomplete road puzzle.

And at the same time, they need to keep the more than 200,000 cars and trucks using that stretch of U.S. 95 every day moving through the cone zone. Those competing interests rarely mesh easily.

"It’s extremely difficult," McKenzie said. "You’re in a situation that you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. We’d rather allow people the opportunity to do that" and use the ramp, even if it’s an imperfect alignment.

Meanwhile, drivers are losing patience after years of contending with realignments, traffic shifts and lane closures on U.S. 95.

"As we get closer to November, people are becoming more and more anxious, asking ‘Why can’t we get it all open now?’ It’s a massive project," McKenzie said. "They’re excited about it being done. They’re getting a little bit antsy."

And judgmental. The ramp alignment isn’t the only frustration I’ve heard about the Rancho ramps. There’s quite a bit of concern over the exit from southbound U.S. 95, where there’s a wide, sweeping left turn onto northbound Rancho.

Some commuters have told me the turn is too wide and too sweeping to the point where a wayward driver could easily drift into the opposing lane of traffic, triggering a head-on wreck. (Opposing directions of traffic are separated only by lane markings, without any physical barrier.)

McKenzie said the turn meets engineering standards, and no changes are planned.

"Like anything new, it takes some getting used to," he said. "It’s incumbent upon motorists to look at the traffic control. If you drive defensively, you’ll do much better."

Hope it works out. The good news regarding the onramp that left McCall and I in such a tizzy is that a direct ramp from Rancho to northbound U.S. 95 could open as soon as Thursday.

The bad news is, I’m sure there will be other surprises in store for valley commuters on U.S. 95 as its widening winds down, and as other freeway projects continue. Drivers, beware.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call the Road Warrior at 387-2904, or e-mail him at roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com or OSofradzija@reviewjournal.com. Please include your phone number.

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