Ramped up

Sometime in the middle of November, the Nevada Department of Transportation is scheduled to deliver an early Christmas present to Las Vegas Valley motorists: the completion of U.S. Highway 95 widening between Rainbow Boulevard and Interstate 15.

The state’s most ambitious and expensive widening project ever has enraged and inconvenienced drivers for a decade. Lane shifts and restrictions, ramp closures and the constant presence of orange barrels and cones have turned common commuters into grizzled highway Huns. The promise of improved traffic flow, a smoother, straighter ride and no road work for at least a few years — in less than three months — is cause for celebration.

But those orange barrels and ramp closures? Sorry, it’ll probably be more than a year before those go away for good.

You see, even though construction on the offramp from southbound U.S. 95 to Martin Luther King Boulevard is complete, motorists won’t be able to use it until November 2008 at the earliest. The barrels blocking the ramp exit will remain in place until then, as will the “CLOSED” sign pasted on the exit sign above them.

What gives?

The city of Las Vegas has decided the state shouldn’t open the ramp until public works crews can complete some improvements to Martin Luther King. According to the Review-Journal’s Road Warrior columnist, Omar Sofradzija, the $36 million project will widen the road from four to six lanes between Alta Drive and Carey Avenue and upgrade stoplights, landscaping and storm drains. The city intends to begin the project sometime in December — weeks after the state is finished with U.S. 95.

Although the entire project won’t be finished until August 2009, the city anticipates being done with the southernmost work by late next year, at which time the offramp and an onramp from MLK onto northbound U.S. 95 will finally open.

In the meantime, millions of dollars worth of badly needed, taxpayer-funded infrastructure will go unused.

“From a traffic safety standpoint, keeping the (new) ramps closed continuously until MLK is completed is the best course to avoid driver confusion,” city of Las Vegas Public Works spokeswoman Debby Ackerman wrote to Mr. Sofradzija in an e-mail. “Also, the ramps need the MLK widening improvements to be in place in order to function in the best and safest manner.”

“Driver confusion”? If motorists can navigate the hairpin lane shifts that change every week on U.S. 95, surely they’re skilled enough to handle an occasional detour at the end of an offramp. And if NDOT leaves the MLK offramp closed for the next 15 months, it won’t change the fact that thousands of U.S. 95 users need access to the road every day. They’ll simply take another route, as they do today, overburdening streets such as Bonanza Road and Alta in the process.

The more sensible option is to open the ramp and give drivers the choice they’ve been waiting for: use the MLK exit and take a chance that road work will create a slight backup, or find another way.

This argument isn’t about Review-Journal employees wanting a quicker commute (the newspaper’s offices are a few hundred feet from the new offramp). It’s about easing pressure on the valley’s congested roads and highways and giving local motorists, who’ve twice voted to increase taxes for road improvements, access to their investments.

And this whole mess also reveals that local and state transportation planners, despite countless recommendations over the years, still can’t coordinate their projects. City officials have known what the completed U.S. 95 project would look like since the mid-’90s, and yet they’ll finally get around to improving MLK after work on the highway is done.

At a bare minimum, the city should have fast-tracked MLK upgrades at U.S. 95 to allow these ramps to open with the rest of the highway project.

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