Column: 1970s vision of bypass still just a mirage

I was wrong in last week's column.

Carson City hasn't been waiting 20 years for a bypass. It's been more like 30 years and probably longer.

One of many readers who contacted me this past week faxed a copy of an article from the Carson City Review, a weekly newspaper that published for a short time during the early 1970s. That article, dated Oct. 6, 1971, included a map showing the bypass route, which seems to be the same route we are looking at today.

"Our 1990 freeways?" the headline above the story hopefully wondered.

With the 1990s come and gone, we know the answer to that one.


According to the story, some consultant named Robert Gordon presented the map to the Regional Planning Commission nearly 29 years ago. He was seeking approval of the freeway for inclusion in the city's then-new master plan.

"The planning board indicated it likes the idea," according to the story, "and Gordon is to continue developing the new master plan along the concept."

I don't know what happened to Mr. Gordon after that. Perhaps he got tired of planning a bypass to nowhere and took up disco lessons.

I also spent a couple of hours in the library over the Labor Day weekend and found more evidence that Carson City has been hoping and praying for traffic solutions at least since the Brady Bunch.

Here's something from a 1983 draft environmental review on the highway:

"U.S. 395 is the most heavily traveled route in Eagle Valley. Traffic volumes along U.S. 395 between Snyder Avenue and Arrowhead Drive are from 10 to over 100 percent greater than volume along U.S. 50 East in Eagle Valley.

"Because of the discontinuity of streets in the central area, access between various areas of Carson City is not as convenient without using U.S. 395 or U.S. 50. This increases use of the highways rather than neighborhood connector streets by residents and may eventually begin to restrict roadside development due to congestion."

Today it appears Carson City will not get a complete bypass until 2009 (38 years after Mr. Gordon presented his map), provided the state doesn't spend all the money on the I-580 Freeway Project between Mount Rose Highway and Washoe Valley. Somehow the I-580 is slated to be completed before the bypass because, according to NDOT Director Tom Stephens, it's further along than the bypass.

The state Transportation Board will meet Wednesday, Sept. 20, to review highway and spending plans for those, and other projects in Clark County. That meeting is at 9 in the morning at the Legislative Building, so working stiffs who must commute on a congested Carson Street each morning and evening probably won't be able to attend.

I think they plan it that way.

During the 1979 master planning process, Carson City residents listed water as their biggest concern. It's one thing to be stuck in traffic, but quite another to be stuck and thirsty.

"Unexpectedly," according to notes from "listening sessions" with residents, "auto circulation was the second most important problem."

The master planners couldn't understand why traffic would be a concern in 1979 when the population was still fairly small.

"Upon further examination, certain factors indicate why it is perceived to be severe," read the report. "The city has very few streets that extend from one side of town to the other, making cross town movement circuitous and often congested."

Nothing much has changed in the past 21 years since that news flash was posted.

"Also," continued the report, "since Carson Street provides the only major north-south access and is also a major highway, cross town traffic on and intersecting this route increases peak hour congestion."

Yikes. Hope the city didn't pay too much for that bit of information.

The city, it must be noted, is no innocent bystander in this bypass debacle. It had a good idea in 1996 that the second half of the bypass, from Highway 50 East to Highway 50 West, would not be completed before the I-580 Freeway. It also knew that building the northern phase first (Arrowhead to Highway 50 East) would do nothing to relieve traffic on Carson Street.

In fact, two years ago an engineer consultant told city officials they can expect a traffic nightmare during the period between completion of the northern and southern phases of the bypass. He projected three hour delays on Carson Street by then, with motorists waiting through at least two signal cycles during spans of two to three hours each afternoon and for one to two hours each morning.

"It's like they've been telling us all along," said then-supervisor Greg Smith. "The northern leg of the bypass will not relieve any congestion."

During a September, 1996 state Transportation Board meeting, the city tried to get a $200 million bond floated to build the entire bypass, but then-board member and governor Bob Miller opposed the notion, suggesting that if Carson City tried to build the entire bypass it would, "do it as a sacrifice for some of the major roads in Clark County and Washoe County."

Bob also knew where his bread was buttered.

So city fathers decided to hike the gas tax and settle for a two-phased bypass, knowing full well that the wrong phase would be built first.

Some of the candidates for mayor in 1996 realized this and tried to warn voters.

"Let's get it done," said candidate Bob McFadden. "But the majority of traffic congestion is downtown. It would be more effective going from Highway 50 to Highway 50," rather than from Arrowhead to Highway 50 East.

Candidate Patt Quinn-Davis echoed McFadden, pointing out that projected NDOT traffic numbers in the downtown area don't change with a northern section of the bypass in place. "I am convinced that when people understand this project they will see the lack of common sense," she said.

And how.

Unfortunately, common sense has nothing to do with traffic or politics.

It should also be noted that there are voices within NDOT who don't agree with Director Tom Stephens' direction. Several contacted me last week supporting the full bypass project and one even suggested that Stephens is determined to build the I-580 Freeway through Pleasant Valley as a "monument" to himself and some of his "friends and buddies."

Common sense, it seems, is in the silent majority.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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