In defense of the Reno-to- Carson City road … sort of

If you missed the guest editorial from the Las Vegas Review-Journal that appeared on Thursday’s Opinion page, it’s worth repeating the last line.

” … lawmakers should make sure that in the foreseeable future, the Reno-Sparks-Carson City area, which already has enviable traffic flow and will gain a freeway infrastructure years ahead of driver demand, gets no state funding for major additional highway expansions.”

Las Vegas is mad. And when Las Vegas is mad, we should pay attention. They’re the Russia to our Smallbekistan. We’re the tick on their dog.

The editorial was the follow-up on a story in that Vegas paper about the I-580 project, called by some an engineering marvel, and by others an extreme example of government waste. The editorial blames the 8.5-mile, half-a-billion-dollar project for delays in badly needed highway projects there.

Why didn’t they just build it in the valley, widening Highway 395, and saving $375 million in the process, the Review-Journal asked. That’s a tough question to answer, since it goes back 30 years when NDOT put out six options for the highway. None of them was the route that was finally chosen.

Maybe those six routes were too simple? Once all the voices had spoken — developers, politicians, archaeologists and environmentalists among them — we ended up with a route that passes through an active geothermal field and that requires the construction of nine bridges, among them the largest concrete arch in the country. Only by feats of engineering wizardry was such a road even possible.

In today’s fiscal environment (the state is broke), cost-efficiency would likely play a bigger role in the final decision. And the transportation crisis in Las Vegas wasn’t nearly as bad at that time, so the project was approved in all its glory.

There’s no turning back now, either. You can visit the Internet Web cams (http://factory.oxblue.com/client/galena/) and see for yourself that there’s lots of activity. And it will be a great drive (except on windy days) and be well-used (although by Las Vegas standards it will seem deserted).

So who’s ready to stand up and defend the project? And remember, your audience is a commuter stalled in traffic in Las Vegas who thinks Northern Nevada refers to the Stratosphere.

Anybody? Anybody?

Well, I’ve taken the liberty of finding some good reasons for spending hundreds of millions of dollars to build the freeway rather than widen the existing road. For one, it’s important to Carson City because it will link us to the interstate system in grand fashion, featuring awe-inspiring views and the chance to drive across the record-setting concrete arch bridge. It will give the capital city a much-improved first impression.

Response from Las Vegas commuter who thinks Carson City is an Old West-themed, off-the-Strip casino: “If this stupid traffic doesn’t start moving, I’m going to be late for work.”

Well, Pleasant Valley is a special place whose character would have been irreparably damaged by a four-lane racetrack. It just wouldn’t be very pleasant anymore, for people or wildlife. And that’s why building the highway on the hill was necessary.

Commuter stuck in Las Vegas traffic who thinks “capital city” refers to the payday loan place next door: “Why don’t those idiots in government do something about this traffic?!”

The danger in all of this is that those Las Vegas commuters who are stuck in traffic have representatives (many of whom spend lots of time stuck in traffic themselves) who don’t like to be called idiots. And they’ll have the clout to do something about it in the Legislature.

Northern Nevada is lucky to have powerful leaders in the Legislature, but how long will that last? Senate President Pro Tempore Mark Amodei of Carson City is term limited in 2010, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio is 81 and undecided if he will run again.

What happens when it’s time to fund the last phase of the Carson City bypass? If the Legislature’s leadership is controlled by senators and representatives from Vegas, it’s going to be a hard sell, even though Carson residents have been contributing to the fund out of our own pockets.

And what do you think that Las Vegas commuter will say about attempts to fund our choo choo train?

All I can say is that when our new highway opens in 2011, we ought not to thumb our noses at our Las Vegas neighbors. In fact, maybe we should send along some token gifts of appreciation. Let’s see, what makes a good gift for commuters stuck in traffic … how about books on CD, preferably of the self-help variety with an emphasis on stress management or, better yet, the importance of loving thy neighbor.

Barry Ginter (bginter@nevadaappeal.com) is editor of the Nevada Appeal — Carson City’s daily newspaper — in which this column originally appeared.

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