Something smells fishy about bypass priorities

For the cost of one can of tuna per month, Carson City residents were supposed to get a bypass.

At least that's what they were promised more than three years ago when Carson City supervisors approved a nickel gas tax as a sacrifice to the state Transportation Gods.

"It's barely more than a can of tuna," Supervisor Jon Plank remarked when the board unanimously approved the gas tax in March, 1997. Plank actually researched his tuna theory, comparing his gasoline receipts to his grocery bill. The can of tuna was the closest match.

Estimates at the time the gas tax was approved indicated the first phase of the bypass (from Lakeview Boulevard to Highway 50 East) would be done by the spring or fall of 2001.

Today, the progress on the bypass seems slower than rush-hour traffic on Carson Street and the project is starting to smell like a can of tuna that's been opened and left in the sun. Completion of Phase One may still be three years away and Phase Two, which would run from Highway 50 East to roughly Highway 50 West (Spooner Summit junction), may be finished sometime between 2005 and 3005, if everything goes as scheduled.

Progress on Phase Two of the bypass has been a hot topic among candidates in the mayoral race. Some have suggested the project has lost momentum under Mayor Ray Masayko, who is running for reelection and is being challenged by Neil Weaver, Tom Keeton and Tom Tatro, who served more than nine years on the board of supervisors.

The state transportation commission meets next month to discuss the state's billion-dollar (give or take a few zeros) highway "Super Fund" and there are indications that Phase Two funding may be challenged by other state highway projects, including the I-580 Freeway, planned to run between Mount Rose Highway and Washoe Valley.

In Masayko's defense, there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence that the Nevada Department of Transportation promised Carson City anything but Phase One. And even that was a stretch.

"Decision-makers in the urban areas are not real interested in promoting projects outside those areas unless these people are making some type of sacrifice to meet the costs of growth," NDOT Director Tom Stephens said at the time of the gas tax debate. Translated: "Put up, or shut up."

He reminded city officials that the $20 million or so the gas tax would raise was chump change. "The gas tax will nowhere near support a project of this magnitude," he said. The estimated cost at the time stood at $230 million, but has since exceeded $300 million.

Chump change for a bypass, perhaps. But $20 million will buy enough cans of tuna to choke a whale.

There is little doubt that NDOT is on the hook for at least Phase One. "The gas tax is the whole basis for accelerating the schedule," Stephens said three years ago. At the time he estimated that if the gas tax was approved, construction on Phase One would begin in early 1998 and be finished early next year.

An endangered butterfly, drainage issues and flaming financials have delayed the project.

The problem with the tuna theory, though, is that Carson City residents probably thought the term "bypass" meant what it was intended to mean; that motorists would be able to "pass by" Carson City, all for the price of one can of tuna per month. There is no such thing as half a bypass. That's like being almost pregnant.

Polled three years ago, motorists generally supported the gas tax hike.

"I think they should build the damned thing," said one 30-year resident (now 33-year resident). "The traffic downtown is horrible."

"I'm making enough money from my job," said another motorist. "At least it's a good way to spend the money. It's when they tax stuff and you don't get anything that bothers me."

She'd probably have something different to say today about her "tax stuff and don't get anything" remark.

If Phase One is completed, but Phase Two is delayed by funding, political disputes, another endangered butterfly, or food poisoning from bad tuna, motorists traveling from Reno through Carson City will be unceremoniously dumped in the middle of Highway 50 East. That's not exactly where you want to be if you're heading to South Carson or Douglas County.

So instead of taking Phase One of the bypass (which would technically be called a bisected bypass), most motorists will probably just stay on Carson Street, which means $20 million worth of tuna and some endangered butterflies will have been wasted.

There's been lots and lots of closed-door debate surrounding the bypass issue of late. The governor doesn't want to see Washoe County and Carson City fighting over funding for the I-580 and bypass projects.

Carson City would lose that one, anyway. Most agree that we don't need the I-580 until the bypass is built, but the I-580 project features the longest concrete bridge in the U.S. and that's much more exciting down at NDOT than a run-of-the-mill bypass.

Besides, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio lives in Washoe County and if Raggio wants a freeway, or anything else, he generally gets it. Raggio wouldn't need Phase Two of the bypass to get from Reno the Senate Building, anyway.

So there it is. At the risk of spoiling the party next month at the Nevada Transportation Commission meeting (they'd prefer not to see a bunch of angry, tax-paying, tuna-deprived, voting motorists there), folks interested in seeing a complete bypass in place in their lifetimes might want to attend the meeting.

Let your elected officials know that if they won't give you a bypass they ought to at least return the tuna.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.


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