One week after its major bypass operation, Hoover Dam appears pain free and ready to resume normal activities.
Though U.S. Highway 93 no longer runs across the top of the dam, paid visitation has held steady since the O’Callaghan-Tillman Memorial Bridge opened quietly on Oct. 19.
Officials at the dam are reporting a 2 percent dip in tour attendance, but a 13 percent jump in parking garage revenue during the past week, suggesting that Hoover Dam continues to be a draw, if mostly as a stunning vantage point to check out the new concrete-arch bridge.
Those early numbers look pretty good to Ken Rice, area manager for Hoover and the other federal dams along the lower Colorado River.
“We just didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
Some suggested that fewer people would stop at the dam because it no longer stands smack in the middle of the fastest route between Las Vegas and Phoenix. Others predicted increased traffic from visitors who previously stayed away because of all the construction and traffic congestion in the area.
Bob Walsh, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Boulder City, said it’s too soon to know which prediction might come true.
“Hoover Dam has been accessible as a highway route since the 1930s. It’s going to take a while for a new (visitation) pattern to emerge,” he said.
So far, one thing seems clear: People can’t wait to check out that new bridge.
Since it opened on Oct. 21, the parking area for the bridge’s pedestrian walkway has been jammed, especially during the middle of the day and despite the absence of restrooms.
“That’s been a very popular attraction, and we’re glad to see that,” Rice said.
The bridge walkway can only be accessed from the old stretch of U.S. 93 that closed to through traffic as soon as the bridge opened. That stretch of road, which also serves as the lone access point for the dam, can only be reached from the Nevada side of Black Canyon by way of a new highway interchange just east of the Hacienda hotel and casino.
Once motorists get to the dam, they are still free to cross the top of the structure, though the road is now closed just beyond the last parking area at the top of the hill on the Arizona side.
“We wanted you to be able to drive across like mom and dad did years ago,” Rice said.
There is still traffic on the old road, but it’s not nearly as heavy — or as constant — as it was when more than 4 million vehicles drove over the dam each year.
Tourists Ken and Cindy Woods of Florida decided to include the new bridge in their weeklong trip to Nevada after seeing a picture of it on the cover of Parade magazine. They stopped at the dam too while they were at it.
“I didn’t realize all this stuff was out here,” Cindy Woods said Thursday morning as she studied a plaque near the Winged Figures of the Republic. “It’s unbelievable.”
Friends Ernie Blair, Stew Brock and Art Davenport came for the opposite reason. After three trips to Las Vegas from Virginia, they decided it was time to finally see Hoover Dam.
“It’s just a lot of history to catch up on,” Blair said.
Brock said the bridge “was just a bonus for us.”
Reclamation officials are already planning several new exhibits as part of the transition from artery to attraction. One of them, set to open in the spring or summer, would allow visitors to explore an old machine-gun turret on the Arizona side of the canyon.
Walsh said about a half dozen such bunkers were built around the dam during World War II, but only one is left.
An interpretive display on desert bighorn sheep is also planned where the road now ends on the Arizona side of the canyon, which is an area frequented by the migrating animals.
Other, more radical ideas include renting out the building next to the Nevada spillway for weddings and business meetings and periodically closing the road on top of the dam for car shows, art festivals and other special events.
Walsh said such options exist now that “you don’t have the highway going across the top of your house anymore basically.”
The bureau also is contemplating new hiking trails down to the Colorado River and the opening of the Lower Portal Road to the general public. Right now, the road to the base of the dam is open only to reclamation personnel and permitted river outfitters.
Rice said Hoover Dam budgets about $12 million a year for visitor services from paying tour guides to maintaining restrooms. The goal is to recoup all of that money through ticket sales and other tourism revenue.
Ultimately, operations at the dam are paid for through the sale of power and water, so if the visitation program falls short of paying for itself, utility customers make up the difference.
“Visitation is important. You can’t run this facility without the visitors,” Walsh said.
Rice said there has always been a great deal of interest in the dam. He expects that to continue — and perhaps grow — now that the bypass is open.
“We’re still trying to figure out the bridge and our interaction with it. Like anything new, people want to come and see it,” he said. “But Hoover is that icon. It’s that piece that everyone wants to see and touch and be a part of.”
Contact reporter Henry Brean at email@example.com or 702-383-0350.