Deal for a real bypass is welcome

There it was in black and white, looking official in its government-logo letterhead titled "News Release." It inched its way through my fax machine last week and landed on my desk.

"Government Agencies Cooperate To Build Needed Roads," read the headline. "I-580 and Carson Bypass Projects Both Scheduled."

So just like that it appears Carson City will get the bypass it's been waiting for more than 30 years.

According to the press release, the breakthrough comes after "many hours" of discussions and that, "all parties are comfortable with the outcome."

I assume that "all parties" includes those public officials who met privately to hash out a deal. I don't recall seeing any public meeting agendas posted on those "many hours of discussions," so it's probably safe to assume they were had behind closed doors.

Nor do I recall anyone asking how comfortable anyone outside those discussions was with the outcome.

I suppose I'm kind of comfortable. Although it's pretty tough to tell from a government-issued press release just how comfortable I really ought to be.

From the release it looks as if Washoe County and Carson City got together and decided not to fight over the money we might be getting to build freeways. If you recall, Washoe County wants to build a freeway between Mount Rose Highway and Washoe Valley. It's officially called the I-580 Freeway and will unofficially cost $300 million, give or take $100 million.

Carson City would like to build both phases of a bypass consecutively, realizing that a bifurcated bypass is as good as, oh, salsa with no chips. Citizens have been paying a nickel more for gasoline for the past three-plus years for what is now also estimated to be a $300 million project, give or take $100 million.

For awhile there it appeared Carson City might get half a bypass and then wait for the I-580 Freeway to be built before getting the other half funded.

But that was all a giant misunderstanding, according to some government officials.

Had we read the NDOT flip charts correctly (standing on our heads and squinting), we would have clearly seen that it was never an "either, or" battle between the two freeways.

It was ... well ... it was ... geeze ... OK, so maybe it was a battle between the two.

All I ever did was question why we were spending $300 million (give or take $100 million) to build an I-580 Freeway over a geothermal area, along a ridge that will probably see mud and rock slides every year, and down to Washoe Valley to get motorists to Carson City faster so they can sit in traffic jams on Carson Street.

And there are other legitimate concerns with the I-580 Freeway. For example: Where is the cost/benefit analysis? That nine-mile stretch was supposed to cost $160 million in 1996 and be finished by 2003. The price tag is now $300 million and is slated to be finished in 2006. By the time the bills come due I'll bet it will cost a lot more than $300 million. In an out-of-court settlement, the state was reportedly asked to pay an estimated $17 million just for some right-of-way through the affluent St. James Village development. But they'd like to keep the exact amount a secret. Even if it is your money.

If I'm not mistaken the governor asked NDOT officials for a cost/benefit analysis on the I-580 Freeway and on the Carson City Bypass. From what I hear, the I-580 comes out a loser, with a benefit of roughly 30 cents on the dollar versus a $2 benefit for every dollar spent on the Carson City Bypass.

No wonder NDOT Director Tom Stephens isn't anxious to show that little flip chart.

If the state Transportation Board approves the deal when it meets on Wednesday, Sept. 20 (9 a.m. in the Legislative Building), here's what we'd be looking at:

-- Finish the $136 million Phase 1 leg of the bypass from Lakeview Hill to Highway 50 East sometime in 2004.

-- Finish the nine-mile I-580 Freeway extension by 2006.

-- Start construction of Phase Two of the bypass (estimated at $160 million) from Highway 50 East to Highway 50 West (Spooner junction) sometime in 2003 and finish in 2008, 2009, or 2010, depending upon how the charts are eventually flipped.

Although I don't like my public officials making deals behind closed doors, even if this is Nevada, I can certainly understand why they did it.

Gov. Kenny Guinn told them to. My guess is that he instructed the NDOT director to clean up this mess before the Sept. 20 meeting or else. Guinn chairs the state Transportation Board and isn't fond of circuses.

And I have to credit Carson City Manager John Berkich for playing negotiator. Berkich is a reasonable man and it sounds as if he did the city proud during these rounds of talks in a 30-year series of bypass talks.

State Sen. Mark Amodei also deserves credit for his role in helping to return the bypass to the forefront of NDOT financial flip charts. Amodei has been one of Carson City's strongest voices in a sea of Clark County advocates.

But nothing is official until the state board says it is and that isn't likely to happen until the Sept. 20 meeting. We've been made promises before.

So it would still be a great idea if Carson City motorists showed up at the Sept. 20 meeting just in case. Back-door meetings can be productive, but there's still nothing like a good open forum to keep everything on the up and up.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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