Northern Nevada gravy: Time to refocus where funding goes

It’s party time for folks who commute between Reno and Carson City. Saturday marks the start of festivities celebrating the opening of Interstate 580, the most expensive highway project in Nevada history. An 8 a.m. fun run and bike ride will baptize the 8.5-mile stretch of road, which cost $550 million and has been in the works for decades.

The revelry should have another component: A thank you card to Southern Nevadans, who not only paid for most of the project, but who’ve spent years stuck in traffic at Las Vegas area chokepoints that lack the funding for improvements.

Interstate 580 is a testament to political power, misplaced priorities and wasteful spending. The bridge-linked, mountainside route will cut just six minutes from the current, lower route between Reno and Carson City, on U.S. Highway 395 in the Pleasant Valley. Instead of widening U.S. 395 at less than one-fourth the cost, the state and Washoe County decided to create a more costly, scenic route from scratch.

Had heavy traffic and population growth warranted such largess, it might have been defensible. But the new road is projected to carry just 25,000 vehicles per day. For some perspective on that gridlock, understand that an estimated 30,000 vehicles per day drove Summerlin Parkway between Town Center Drive and Anasazi Drive last year, according to a Nevada Department of Transportation report. Much of Rainbow Boulevard, south of U.S. 95, carries up to 50,000 vehicles per day, to say nothing of the more than 250,000 cars and trucks that roll past the Strip on Interstate 15.

In other words, Reno and Carson City – thanks to powerful northern lawmakers who directed resources to their own backyards – now have a new highway that won’t approach its capacity for decades, while Las Vegas road planners are still struggling to play catch-up.

Recession-ravaged Nevada no longer has the money to be so foolishly generous with any project or institution. Scarce tax dollars must flow to where they’re most needed and can do the most good. When state lawmakers drive I-580 to get to the Legislative Building in Carson City, next year and into the future, the highway should serve as a constant reminder of that.

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