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Tractor-trailer ban unlikely on new bridge

It is unlikely local politicians and transportation officials will succeed in temporarily banning tractor-trailers from the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge because the span was built to improve commercial transportation, federal and state sources said Wednesday.

Instead, the Nevada Department of Transportation plans to request that the Federal Highway Administration waive environmental impact study requirements to expedite its plans to widen the U.S. Highway 93 approach to the bridge to four lanes, spokesman Scott Magruder said.

If approved by the federal government, the transportation agency would start construction on the project to eliminate the two-lane bottleneck near the bridge by summer.

"We’d like to get that going ASAP," Magruder said.

Last week, Regional Transportation Commission General Manager Jacob Snow and Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler joined forces and said they intend to submit an emergency request to the federal government to divert tractor-trailers through Laughlin.

Tobler said the bottleneck on U.S. 93 causes standstill traffic jams through his town, hurting local businesses.

Commercial trucks returned to the highway in October when the bridge opened. For nearly a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they were prohibited from crossing Hoover Dam for security reasons. Truckers had to take a detour through Laughlin.

"It seems highly unlikely to ban trucks because that’s the reason the bridge was built," Magruder said. "It is a cost-benefit. We put a lot of money into it. Moving goods and services, that’s the benefit."

The $240 million bridge was built with federal funds but turned over to the Nevada Department of Transportation to maintain. Neither federal nor state officials seemed sure who has the authority to enact a temporary truck ban, but none of them appeared to favor the idea.

A move to again divert tractor-trailers through Laughlin would be opposed by trucking organizations.

Paul Enos, chief executive officer of the Nevada Transport Association, is scheduled to visit the bridge and assess the traffic problems next week. He plans to meet with Snow during his visit.

"We want to come look and see what the issues are, come to an understanding," Enos said. "It’s been my experience that when you get reasonable individuals in the room, you can come up with a better solution. "

The journey through Laughlin takes about 45 minutes to an hour longer than using the bridge, Enos said. Truck drivers have learned to work around the backups, which typically take place during the weekends.

The federal government is considering reducing trucker’s maximum drive time from 11 hours to 10 hours, which makes the bridge route all that more important to the industry, Enos said.

"They’re all nervous about it," Enos said of the drivers. "It has pretty serious operational impacts for the industry. It’s the cost of fuel, it’s time, it’s carbon footprint, it’s maintenance. The bridge has helped them quite a bit."

Enos said a small trucking outfit expected that returning to the Laughlin route would cost the company an additional $120,000 a year.

Critics of tractor-trailers using the bridge might not understand that Nevada receives 90 percent of its freight by truck, Enos said. Any added expenses are passed along to the consumer. And they might not know that only single-load trucks are permitted across the bridge.

"I think trucks are an easy scapegoat," said Enos, opining that the problem is the road, not the return of the tractor-trailers. "Figuratively and literally, trucks are a big target. People have a negative impression of them."

Both government officials and truckers question whether widening U.S. 93 to four lanes will resolve the problem. Traffic signals in Boulder City will continue to slow the flow.

Whether the widening helps or not, the problem probably will be raised during a push for funding for Interstate 11 in the next legislative session. The bridge is a federally designated segment of the national truck network developed to move goods throughout the United States and between Mexico and Canada.

Interstate 11 would follow the same alignment as the proposed Boulder City bypass, which has never come to fruition because of lack of funding and opposition from Boulder City politicians and businesses.

Last week, Snow said he no longer would refer to the new highway as the bypass but instead as Interstate 11, a project that might be easier digested by lawmakers and bypass opponents.

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

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