An interchange collecting dust

Say what you will about Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” boondoggle. At least taxpayers and federal budget watchdogs screamed loud enough to keep the thing from being built.

Clark County officials have taken a different, but equally shameful approach to bridge construction. Rather than create controversy on the front end by planning an expensive span for a location that benefits no one, they built a bridge over a busy stretch of highway in one of the most densely populated parts of the valley — and announced that no one can use it for about two years.

At a time when cities can’t improve roads fast enough and the Nevada Department of Transportation is confronting a $5 billion funding shortfall for needed highway capacity upgrades in the valley, Clark County government is committed to keeping the $12.4 million Lake Mead Boulevard bridge over the Las Vegas Beltway blocked off until sometime in 2010.

The decision boggles the mind.

The interchange has been a headache for transportation planners for more than a decade. Nearby Sun City Summerlin residents have long griped about dust and noise and complained that Beltway traffic would eventually reduce property values and increase crime in the retirement enclave. The project has moved forward despite the organized opposition, and none of the doomsaying has come true.

But about two years ago, the NIMBYs won a ridiculous concession: The county agreed to prevent traffic from exiting the Beltway onto eastbound Lake Mead until a new interchange was built at Summerlin Parkway. The retirement set successfully argued that if the Lake Mead bridge were opened upon completion, motorists making their way toward downtown would avoid construction at Summerlin Parkway — a single stop before more than 10 miles of uninterrupted highway commuting — and instead endure more than a dozen traffic signals on eastbound Lake Mead before reaching U.S. Highway 95.

With the project designed and funded, the county then got word from Summerlin developer The Howard Hughes Corp. that the struggling housing market had delayed the company’s plans to build out the master-planned community on the west side of the Beltway. The builder wouldn’t need access to westbound Lake Mead from the Beltway until mid- to late 2009, at the earliest.

Work is just getting started on the Beltway’s Summerlin Parkway interchange. Sun City residents appear content to have six-lane Lake Mead Boulevard mostly to themselves in the coming two years, but what about all the people who live south of Lake Mead, outside of Sun City? Just because most of them must work and attend to their families instead of attend public meetings, should their interests be ignored?

And why is Clark County keeping a promise that was based on a blatant misrepresentation? It’s good that local governments actively seek constituent input on major projects, but that doesn’t mean planners must accept arguments motivated solely by a desire to delay and obstruct projects crucial to the economic health of the county as a whole.

The most unforgivable consequence of the bridge’s closure, however, is the fact that $12.4 million in local taxpayer money will provide no returns for two years when it could have been applied to projects just getting under way. The county could have wrapped up the interchange at Summerlin Parkway or Far Hills Avenue by now, improving traffic flow on the Beltway for tens of thousands of valley commuters.

Clark County Commissioner Chip Maxfield, who represents the area, didn’t respond to attempts to reach him for comment. Mr. Maxfield has stood up to the Sun City NIMBYs before, and considering he is not running for re-election this year, he should do it again.

Rather than watch a perfectly useful piece of public infrastructure collect dust because of a politically expedient promise, Mr. Maxfield should bring the issue before the board. The decision to seal off a $12.4 million bridge shouldn’t be made in informal meetings with a handful of constituents. It should be made by the full commission in a binding, public vote.

The Clark County Commission should open the Beltway’s Lake Mead Boulevard interchange at once.

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