Project to connect Mexico, US, Canada looks for traction | NevadaAppeal.com

Project to connect Mexico, US, Canada looks for traction

Mick Akers
Vegas INC

LAS VEGAS — It's only a modest 2.5 miles of a long-term plan to better connect Las Vegas and Phoenix — the two largest cities in the U.S. not currently linked by an interstate — and a longer-term dream to link Mexico, the U.S and Canada. But last month's opening of the first local phase of Interstate 11 between Henderson and Boulder City was a culmination of decades of planning and brought into focus how far there is to go.

The portion of the route that was once known as the Boulder City Bypass will divert the majority of traffic — including tractor-trailers — from traveling through Boulder City via U.S. 93.

The effect is mixed for the quiet town. Proponents are pleased with the prospect of less traffic backup. Opponents fear businesses could whither with fewer travelers making their way through Boulder City's restaurant and shopping district.

What was debated locally for years, however, pales in comparison to the ultimate vision of I-11, stretching from Mexico to Canada, outlined in the North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA and identified in the CANAMEX Corridor.

The I-11 project incorporates multiple stretches of existing highways, including interstates 19 and 10, U.S. 93 and U.S. 95.

The 5-year $305 billion Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, signed into law in December 2015, provides a 15 percent increase to highway funding and 18 percent increase to transit. Nevada will receive a total of $1.9 billion over five years or roughly $385 million a year. That marks a $170 million total increase over the previous funding levels to the state.

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Funding for the initial phases was made up mostly of money from the Federal Highway Administration's Advance Construction program. The program gives the Nevada Department of Transportation the option to be reimbursed up to $291 million, or almost 92 percent of project-related costs, from its future federal highway funding apportionments.

The first two phases are also funded by $22 million in Fuel Revenue Indexing (FRI) funds from Clark County, along with $5 million in state monies.

PHASE 1 COMPLETED

NDOT's Interstate 11 Phase 1 southbound lanes opened Aug. 15. The entire $83 million 2.5-mile first phase should be fully drivable by late December.

The project calls for a four-lane concrete interstate freeway between Foothill Drive in Henderson and Silverline Road in Boulder City with a full diamond interchange at Railroad Pass.

The interchange includes a loop ramp and a 600-foot two-lane flyover bridge from southbound I-11 to eastbound U.S. 93 toward Boulder City.

The project's visual centerpiece is a 1,200-foot-long, 28-foot-tall concrete retaining wall with multicolored graphics and steel figures and objects that illustrate scenes from the construction of Hoover Dam.

"It reflects the region's social, cultural, and economic history, acting as an iconic graphic gateway to Boulder City," NDOT spokesman Tony Illia said.

Phase 1 also reconnects the railroad tracks made unusable by the completion of U.S. 93 with a 360-foot bridge that allows the freeway to pass underneath. A steel pedestrian bridge connecting the River Mountains Loop and Henderson trail systems is planned.

Other project components include a 1.5-mile frontage road linking Henderson with the Railroad Pass interchange, as well as replanting 20,000 cacti, placing decorative rock and installing 5 miles of tortoise fencing.

RTC PHASE 2

The Regional Transportation Commission's $235 million Phase 2 of the I-11 project is on schedule to be complete in fall 2018. Most of Phase 2 will be finished in June with completion set for October 2018.

Unlike the 2.5-mile Phase 1 opening in segments, Phase 2 will not feature a segmented opening plan.

"The RTC's portion of the project comprises 12.5 miles of new roadway through the Eldorado Mountains and will open once it is fully complete," RTC spokeswoman Monika Bertaki said.

Once Phase 2 of I-11 is complete, the RTC will turn the interstate over to NDOT for oversight and maintenance.

Construction of I-11 marks the first new infrastructure to the 47,856-mile Interstate Highway System since it was deemed complete in 1992.

WHAT'S NEXT?

There is no Phase 3 yet planned, but the initial two phases of I-11 will improve motorist safety and reduce travel time by an estimated 30 minutes because of higher speeds and the absence of signal lights, project officials said.

"When I-11 is complete, it will relieve congestion that typically builds up in Boulder City, improve safety and save travel time between Las Vegas and Phoenix," Bertaki said. "Not only that, it will enhance commerce and freight movement between the two states."

The project will play an important role serving the Mountain West region, which is forecasted to add 32 million more residents between now and 2030.

"NDOT officials are still examining where the next segment of I-11 should run, Illia said. "A $5.3 million traffic study analyzing the valley's major freeway corridors — including I-11 — is expected to be completed by spring 2018."

The proposed routes would use mostly existing highways that might have to be expanded. Those include:

– West on the 215 Beltway, winding up to a new connection with U.S. 95.

– North on U.S. 95 through the Spaghetti Bowl to the northwest end of the Las Vegas valley.

– A new freeway that would run from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area past Frenchman Mountain about 8 miles east of Las Vegas before emerging at Interstate 15, where it would connect with the 215 Beltway west to U.S. 95.

In each case, the I-11 corridor would exit the Las Vegas Valley to the north along the existing U.S. 95.

ARIZONA PORTION

With the initial phases heading toward completion on the Nevada side, construction is years away on the Arizona's 200-mile portion.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is conducting a 3-year Tier 1 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Nogales (on the Mexico-Arizona border) to Wickenburg (54 miles northwest of Phoenix) section.

"We finished up our public comment period for the alternative corridor options in June," ADOT spokeswoman Laura Douglas said. "This comment period included six public meetings throughout the study corridor in May."

The meetings were conducted to discuss the scope of issues to be addressed during the study. The alternatives-development phase of the study will eventually reduce the number of proposed routes for further study.

ADOT must finish the Tier 1 EIS and then a Tier 2 EIS for the Nogales to Wickenburg corridor before any construction plans can be created. The Tier 1 study is expected to be complete in late 2019, Douglas said.

Financing of Arizona's portion of I-11 will be the next focal point.

"ADOT continues to work with our federal, state and local partners to advance I-11," Douglas said. "From border to border, I-11 will be a combination of new and existing infrastructure — with improvements made to much of the existing infrastructure."

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