Maybe we'll get some straight answers at Transportation meeting

"Follow the money."

That's what a reader suggested to me as we were discussing the "whys" and "wheres" of freeways.

Want to know why freeways get built where they are built?

Follow the money.

Want to know why some freeways get built and others don't?

Follow the money.

You'll have a chance to do some of that tomorrow when the state Transportation Board meets to dish out millions of those dollars for freeway projects in Nevada over the next several years. Of particular local interest will be the long-awaited Carson City bypass and the equally-long-awaited-but-less-urgent I-580 freeway extension from Mount Rose Highway to Washoe Valley. It technically won't be an "I-580 Freeway" until it's done, but that's what we'll call it for now.

The meeting will be conducted at the Legislative Building at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

The two local projects will cost at least $300 million apiece when they are completed. Four years ago they were each estimated to cost half of that.

It stands to reason that by the time they are both completed (between 2006 and 2010), the price tag will have increased significantly.

In order to know where those projects are today, which we may learn more about tomorrow, we need to understand where they've been.

Let's start with the I-580 freeway.

Prior to 1997 that nine-mile stretch of freeway between Mount Rose Highway and Washoe Valley wasn't going much of anywhere. Suddenly it was put on the front burner.

According to a March 1997 story in the Reno newspaper, "Increasing pressure to develop land needed for the new freeway corridor makes the $190 million project a more urgent priority."

They estimated at the time it would be finished by 2003.

The state's track record for estimating costs and completion dates has been as accurate as a United flight schedule.

That project is now estimated to cost $300 million and finish in 2006.

In that same March 1997 Reno newspaper story, transportation officials pointed out that Carson City was one of only three state capitals not connected to the interstate highway system. When completed, motorists will get to drive all the way to Interstate 80 from Carson City without stopping.

And that will be a great thing, considering how long they will be stopping in Carson City as they inch their way up Carson Street.

Some questions to ponder on the I-580 freeway project as we prepare for Wednesday's state transportation board meeting:

-- Where is the cost-benefit analysis of the I-580 versus the Carson City bypass? I hear one exists and that it shows the I-580 to be a loser, with a return of 15 cents on the dollar. The Carson City bypass, on the other hand, shows a return of $2 for every dollar spent, according to my own sources.

As one reader points out, "We deserve to know what $300 million or $400 million is buying us." The state will argue that it's spent too much money on the I-580 freeway to turn back now. "That's like saying I'd like to buy a new car and even though a Chevy will do nicely I should mortgage my house to get a Cadillac because they can deliver it sooner," countered one reader.

-- How much money will the state be spending to settle the pending lawsuit over some right-of-way for the I-580 through the affluent St. James Village development up along Mount Rose Highway? I heard the state wanted to pay $4 million for the land, but the property owners wanted $40 million. A settlement was reached at around $17 million, but the terms have somehow been secret. Never mind that it's tax money they're settling with.

-- Why is Carson City, with a population of 50,000, contributing $20 million in gasoline taxes to the $300 million bypass, when Washoe County, population 300,000-plus, is contributing an estimated $300,000 to the $300 million I-580 freeway?

According to the latest estimates, Carson City ought to have half a bypass in place by 2004, or so. It will run from Lakeview Hill to Highway 50 East (coming out somewhere around Lompa Lane) and then you're on your own. If you're heading to Dayton it will be swell. If you're heading to South Carson or to Douglas County, you'll be wondering what in the heck you are doing on Lompa Lane.

Half a bypass won't relieve traffic on Carson Street. That's why I've been saying for these past several weeks that there is no such thing as half a bypass. I don't care how many flip charts NDOT or the city whip out.

They say construction on the second half of the bypass, from Highway 50 East to Highway 50 West will begin in 2003, but they have no clue yet when it will be finished. Some say 2008. Some say 2010.

I say, it won't matter by then. Carson Street will resemble a scene from the Road Warriors movie as commuters choke on exhaust fumes during daily death marches to and from work.

If you attend tomorrow's NDOT meeting you can expect to be dazzled by all kinds of charts, speeches and perhaps even a overhead slide show illustrating clearly that the SWOT and MGHT has determined that the GOST outweighs the BFD, so therefore we need lots and lots of MOOLAH. For a moment you'll think you are in acronym hell, but just squint your eyes, chew gum and it won't hurt as much.

Gov. Kenny Guinn, who chairs the state transportation board, said during the last meeting that, "We need to find out before we come back in September which is the number one priority for the interconnected community from Mount Rose to Spooner Summit. We don't have enough money to do all the projects. We can't make everyone happy."

A couple of weeks ago representatives from Carson City and Washoe County said they reached an agreement that, "everyone was comfortable with."

But for the life of me I really don't see what changed that would cause me to be comfortable. We're still not getting a full bypass until 2008 or later, at least two years after the I-580 is finished. Perhaps we ought to be comfortable because we will eventually get a bypass? Geeze...I thought that was decided when we were asked to pay a nickel more at the gas pumps.

Unfortunately, straight answers are as difficult to come by as bypasses. One way to keep the citizens at bay during public meetings is to put them to sleep with numbers and then limit their questions to 60 seconds. If you are brave enough to approach the podium, just remember that you pay their wages and remind them of that if they try to treat you like a bug. Some of these politicians can be downright rude when they're not up for reelection.

Most of all, if you care about this bypass issue, please attend the meeting Wednesday and be heard. It's your right. It's what you pay taxes for.

And in Carson City it comes with the price of gasoline.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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