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Interstate linking Vegas, Phoenix faces tough go

Thursday - 3/6/2014, 9:30am  ET

In this Friday, Nov. 8, 2013 photo, motorists head northbound toward Las Vegas on U.S. Highway 93, near Kingman, Ariz. Supporters of proposals to build an interstate highway connecting Phoenix and Las Vegas say an interstate would create a Los Angeles-Phoenix-Las Vegas “megaregion” and open a trade route from Mexico to Pacific Ocean ports and Canada. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

MICHELLE RINDELS
Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Las Vegas and Phoenix are linked by a road that narrows to two lanes, hits stoplights in a Depression-era town and until recently backed up traffic over the Hoover Dam.

Despite being two of the largest cities in the Southwest, they aren't directly connected by an interstate freeway.

There have been halting advances toward creating a slick, new highway to cover the 300 miles of desert between Sin City and the Valley of the Sun, but if it's ever going to happen, according to Steve Betts, leader of a coalition of project supporters, "everyone would have to be very creative."

An effort to improve what's now a 4 ½-hour drive with a more reliable road has heavy-hitting allies, including business leaders and the Republican governor of each state. "Long-term jobs are created by our connectivity," Betts said, noting that the stretch would be the first piece of a new shipping route between Mexico and Canada.

But critics ask whether such a multibillion dollar development would be more than a vanity project that would take resources away from more immediate concerns. The cities already "are connected by U.S. 93. Whether they need an interstate is a question," said transportation historian Earl Swift.

That the cities aren't already linked by an interstate is a fluke of timing. The Phoenix and Vegas populations exploded just after the national road-building frenzy that started in the 1950s.

"As good as the planners were in the midcentury, they could not have foreseen the emergence of Las Vegas," said Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas-based think tank focused on the region's economics and public policy.

The Las Vegas metro area, population 2 million, is 40 times larger than it was in 1950. The Phoenix area, population 4.3 million, has grown 13-fold over that span.

"It's very difficult to remedy something like this once it goes wrong," said Lang, an expert in urban and economic growth. "Piecing this back together is a heavy lift."

Highway supporters won a key victory last year when Congress formally designated Interstate 11. The legislation provides no funding, but it allows builders to tap into interstate construction dollars.

Following that designation, transportation departments in the two states took up a $2.5 million study to plot routes and estimate a cost. The project could run about $4 billion using rough Federal Highway Administration estimates, or closer to $10 billion by other calculations.

Outside-the-box solutions could be necessary as the project confronts difficult political and financial realities.

The nation's interstate system grew out of "a groundswell of grassroots demand" that partly involved safety. The national road fatality rate in 1956, when funding for the system was approved, was almost six times higher than in 2011, the most recent year statistics are available.

"The highway death toll was shocking," said Swift, whose book "The Big Roads," explores the history of the interstate system.

Vehicle crashes were "killing more people on the roads every year than we lost (annually) in Vietnam. It was a crisis," he said. "The public was pushing congressmen to do something about it."

Decades later, the Interstate 11 project doesn't have such public urgency, and safety has been a relatively minor aspect of the pitch.

The main talking points now are how the interstate would create more efficient freight flows and boost the regional economy. "It's not a matter of functionality," said Tom Skancke, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance.

"Looking from a global competitiveness standpoint, does it compete better globally?" he asked. "Or do we want to bounce along the bottom?"

An interstate could link Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas as partners in a "megaregion" that competes with other regions, and could open a trade route from Mexico to Pacific Ocean ports and Canada. Arizona and Nevada are currently losing much of that flow and its attendant development to Texas and California, according to Betts, chairman of CAN-DO, an acronym for Connecting Arizona and Nevada-Delivering Opportunities.

Proponents warn about the consequences of doing nothing, pointing to projections that the cities will add a combined 4 million people by 2025.

"We have to get ahead of the curve," Skancke said. "We're reacting to what happened 30 years ago, while the rest of the world is building."

Proponents are pushing nontraditional financing for Interstate 11, suggesting a public-private partnership in which investors would step in to provide funding. Others, such as transportation expert Bob Poole, of the libertarian Reason Foundation, suggest making the entire stretch a toll road.

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