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Reopening F Street could require more juice than it took to close it

Advocates of reopening F Street won a big battle in the waning hours of the 2009 Legislature, but they were wise not to loudly celebrate their victory.

While state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford helped make sure a substantial majority of legislators were on their side, even to the extent of overriding Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto, history is not.

By legislative mandate, the city of Las Vegas and Nevada Department of Transportation must make available up to $70 million to reopen F Street, which was very quietly closed last year as part of the Interstate 15 widening project. But the money isn’t just sitting there waiting to be spent. The project will be placed on a list of priorities until the money is found.

Some informed sources say it could take up to 11 years before the street is reopened. That’s right. It might be the year 2020 before daylight is observed on that stretch of F Street.

It’s funny how that works. Some months ago, I watched workers close off F Street in a matter of days. There were no delays, only earthmovers and steel and concrete journeymen busily going about their business.

The potential for delay does nothing but feed the cynicism of residents of the mostly poor and black neighborhood. It doesn’t exactly strike a note of optimism in jaded journalism types, either. As one cynical longtime Las Vegas observer said, “That street will never reopen. Years will pass, and no one will remember, or care.”

He might be right. Despite a vote of the Legislature and the override of the governor’s veto, maybe the F Street issue will decay into one of those little remembered stories. Perhaps this newspaper, which in an editorial called the bill’s passage a waste of taxpayer dollars in the name of appeasing residents who cried “discrimination and racism,” will allow the story to yellow and be relegated to an occasional anniversary update.

I hope not. Because I suspect there’s a pretty good story floating somewhere in the shadows of the F Street closure.

Are we to believe that, just because hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction is planned a few hundred feet from the entrance to one of our poorest neighborhoods, no one put in the fix to shut off F Street?

Streets don’t just close by themselves. And in this case, we know there was essentially no public discussion on the possibility the street would be bulldozed shut.

That very likely means that some people with substantial juice in this community thought it was in their best interests to lop off F Street at Bonanza Road. I’m not certain if their names will ever be known, but I’m willing to bet they’d like the story to fade like old newsprint.

If you’re looking for the definition of “cautiously optimistic” when it comes to F Street’s future, look no further than the comments of attorney Matthew Callister and community activist Trish Geran. Callister represents neighbors affected by the F Street closure. An author, Geran possesses a vast knowledge of the history of the community.

After all, Callister said, this story takes place in a historically abused neighborhood that was last to receive power, water and sewer service. Until recent years, many of the neighborhood’s streets still lacked curbs and gutters.

“It was in doubt as late as 1 o’clock” on the final day of the Legislature, said Callister, a former assemblyman and City Council member. “A lot can happen in those last moments. … It was a good day and I’m pleased that Horsford stood his ground.”

Geran said, “The closure made residents feel like, once again, they were being shut out.”

Although the bill called for up to $70 million to reopen the street, in November state officials estimated it would cost as little as $17 million to do the job. But then construction continued even after Callister began litigating the issue. Now the conservative estimate is $30 million to $45 million.

And those dollars will be spent only after they become available, the proper engineering studies are done, and the Interstate 15 widening project is completed. That’s a decade’s worth of delays right there.

Westside residents may have won their battle, but I can’t shake the feeling that those looking forward to F Street’s reopening will be waiting a long, long time.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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