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Yet another highway-project puzzler

The Las Vegas Valley has a storied tradition of poor coordination between government entities in improving highways and roads.

The fresh pavement on a newly widened street might not be six months old before it’s torn up for flood control work, then cut open again for utility work six months after that. A busy road in desperate need of improvements might be plagued with gridlock for years, while a less-traveled street somehow moves to the front of the queue for expansion.

We can add a Nevada Department of Transportation project scheduled to start Monday to Clark County’s infamous list of infrastructure puzzlers.

About a year from now, a $26 million flyover bridge will carry high-occupancy vehicle traffic between U.S. Highway 95 and Summerlin Parkway, above the Rainbow Curve.

The span will spare Summerlin’s eastbound HOV traffic from having to merge onto U.S. 95, then swing left across the entire southbound highway to get into the HOV lane that runs toward downtown. Westbound HOV traffic on U.S. 95, meanwhile, won’t have to worry about crossing four lanes to the right to make the Summerlin Parkway exit. During peak traffic periods, cars carrying at least two people will be able to exit from the center of one highway and merge into the center of the other.

But there’s a problem: Summerlin Parkway doesn’t have HOV lanes, and it won’t anytime soon.

Several years ago, the groundwork was laid to widen the parkway from four lanes to eight. One lane in each direction would be dedicated to car pools and other high-occupancy vehicle traffic. The city of Las Vegas held public meetings on the project in 2007 and planned to pay for most of the work itself. The additional lanes were supposed to accommodate the build-out of the Summerlin master-planned community, which envisioned many thousands of homes on the vast, vacant acreage west of the Las Vegas Beltway between Far Hills and Cheyenne avenues.

Then the economy crashed and burned. The homes weren’t built, so the widening of Summerlin Parkway became unnecessary. And because city revenues had tanked, there was no money for the project, anyway. City officials now hope Nevada’s congressional delegation can come through with federal funding for the additional lanes. Considering the project is such a low priority, the money might never come.

So the new flyover bridge will plop westbound HOV travelers from U.S. 95 into the parkway’s existing two westbound travel lanes, near a merge where Summerlin traffic from southbound U.S. 95 already creates rush-hour tie-ups, and where no accommodating HOV lane will be built anytime soon.

Construction of the ramp inevitably will impose some inconvenience on drivers at one of the busiest interchanges in the city — a curve that’s already been through one massive, recent reconstruction and is frequently jammed up by new major work just north of it. When it’s finally done, the project will result in two exits each way for the same destination. Nevada governments can’t afford the luxury of redundancy in anything, especially roads.

It’s worth noting here that sometimes NDOT can’t win for losing. If a project is built too soon, the department will be criticized for poor prioritization. NDOT officials will face the same criticism for building a project too late.

Department spokeswoman Michelle Booth points out that 90 percent of the funding for the HOV flyover came from Washington, and that the money is project-specific — NDOT can’t simply apply the dollars to higher-priority work, such as the Boulder City bypass. And the bridge is part of a transportation plan and environmental assessment completed about a decade ago, when no one could have predicted the valley’s economic collapse and stalled population growth, she said. Today’s construction costs are low.

But there’s a larger issue here, one that goes beyond the smaller merits and drawbacks of the flyover.

It’s that HOV lanes are about as useful in Las Vegas as a kickstand on a submarine.

The HOV lanes that were added to U.S. 95 between Interstate 15 and the Rainbow Curve — a mandate from our federal masters that allowed us to get back some of the money they took — are easily the least cost-efficient infrastructure in the valley. We spent more than $500 million to widen that stretch of U.S. 95, enduring a decade’s worth of headaches and delays, and two of the four new travel lanes created are off-limits to the vast majority of motorists when they need them most.

Here’s a gentle reminder to all the central planners using our money to manipulate our behavior: We love our cars and we’re not leaving them at home, even if gasoline costs $4 per gallon.

Our city is spread out. We work 24/7, not banker’s hours on weekdays. Our neighbors are not our co-workers. Free parking is available everywhere.

Carpooling isn’t just impractical for most people — it’s impossible. The trouble of coordinating car pools and the loss of daily freedom and flexibility isn’t worth saving a few bucks a day.

If you’re stuck in heavy traffic on U.S. 95, you can count the number of cars that fly down existing HOV lanes on two hands — and half of them are single-passenger scofflaws or vehicles with windows tinted so dark you can’t tell how many people are inside.

So now we’re spending another $26 million to build a bridge that a fraction of drivers will use, to save them a minute at most on their commutes?

Do you make enough money to subsidize a bridge for a few lucky couples who happen to work together?

Me neither.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer.

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