Arizona and Nevada have a few things in common besides Easterners’ happy endorsement of both as excellent sites for nuclear waste dumps. We have UFO sightings, cool tourist destinations, competitive NCAA hoopsters, tax-allergic state legislatures and a hankering to diversify our economies.
What we don’t have is a direct highway linking Phoenix and Las Vegas, our two biggest cities.
This month, we’re going to share something new that could change that. The transportation departments for Arizona and Nevada are teaming up on a $2.5 million viability study that will weigh the prospects for building Interstate 11, a proposed superhighway that would connect Las Vegas and Phoenix and eventually extend to Mexico and Canada. The joint study, expected to run as long as two years, will determine whether the long-proposed road makes sense and, if so, suggest how to pay for it.
In most scenarios, the Phoenix-Vegas expressway would run about 285 miles and include the existing I-515 freeway in Las Vegas where U.S. 93 and 95 run together. It would then continue north along U.S. 95 to Reno. Southbound, it would follow U.S. 93 and emerge as a new north-south Hassayampa Freeway west of Phoenix, intersecting I-10, the main route into that city. The new road would shave at least an hour off the drive time between the two cities. (Space would likely be set aside in the right-of-way for freight and perhaps passenger rail lines as well; freight to and from Mexico’s ports is one of the most economically compelling elements of the project.)
It feels like a highway that was meant to be. Las Vegas and Phoenix—for so many years at or near the top of those “fastest growing” lists—remain the only major U.S. cities so close to one another that aren’t connected by an interstate. A dynamic commercial corridor between the two cities is increasingly viewed as the way to reset the regional economy for expansion. Politicians, urban planners and business leaders tend to agree on its benefits—and tourists would surely prefer a safer, shorter route between the cities. The idea of building I-11 has lingered since the 1990s without much to show for it. Various obstacles, most of them financial, have always blocked the way. But powerful forces have begun uniting to finally put the pieces of the puzzle together; this is what the puzzle looks like so far:
Recent projects seem to herald a future commitment to building the road. In the spirit of I-11, the Hoover Dam bypass (U.S. 93) has already been completed (with the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge), and Arizona has widened and divided U.S. 93 as it approaches Nevada; Arizona also plans to build a U.S. 93 Phoenix bypass from Wickenburg, where the Hassayampa Freeway would start, south past Phoenix. Closely related to I-11 is the multi-phased extended U.S. 93 bypass in Nevada, for which an environmental study has already been approved. The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada is studying the cost of the bypass and how to finance it. RTC officials are already calling it “the 11,” although the project isn’t technically labeled that—yet.
In fact, I-11 lives mostly in the minds of policy wonks and isn’t truly on the drawing boards yet. No definite lines are on the map. Meanwhile, the problems that I-11 is supposed to solve are still out there and only worsening.
Some motorists use Interstates 17 and 40 (to U.S. 93) between Phoenix and Vegas, but the much shorter route (by a hundred miles) is via U.S. 93, an often sluggish, mostly two-lane highway. The problem: It was never envisioned as an express route and now strains to move traffic between the two cities. The highway’s local orientation, with its “slow,” “stop” and left-turn-lane signs, is inclined to decelerate traffic rather than speed it along. (The new DOT studies will provide more information on actual use.)
The Hoover Dam bypass and the O’Callaghan-Tillman Bridge have helped, but only in a specific area. U.S. 93 traffic still clogs the Arizona side heading north and remains congested through Boulder City and Las Vegas, according to RTC general manager Tina Quigley. She thinks the extended U.S. 93 bypass is mandatory; given projections for continued regional population growth, the traffic jam will get a lot worse without further intervention.
Where cars and semis are delayed on the old highway, urban-planning visionaries see a metaphor: a crucial choice between building I-11 and lagging behind in a new era of regional commerce.
Robert Lang, director of the Brookings Mountain West center at UNLV, says closer ties between Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California are critical to the economic survival of the region. He and other visionaries see a “megapolitan” super-region that will integrate Phoenix and Las Vegas into the world economy, and Interstate 11 as the key transportation link to handle this new density of commerce and service. Planners in general foresee I-11 as encouraging closer trade and tourism links between Las Vegas and Phoenix, and making possible a vast international freight and warehousing industry in the desert Southwest.
Nobody seems sure who named the dream highway Interstate 11. But the idea itself made its way into the culture in a 1997 article in the trade magazine Roads & Bridges. Written by Wendell Cox and Jean Love, consultants who had just authored a study on the federal highway program, the article noted that Phoenix and Las Vegas were two of the largest (and already fastest-growing) urban centers not joined by their own interstate connection. They predicted continuing population growth and imagined a superhighway that would reach Reno and Boise, Idaho. A few years later, Arizona planners began envisioning it too, as the Phoenix metropolitan area pressed westward along Interstate 10, the main route between Phoenix and Los Angeles. Developers flooded the Federal Highway Administration with requests for new I-10 interchanges, 43 in all, which would have made I-10 almost impassable. Looking into the requests, the Arizona Department of Transportation in 2005 asked the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), a public-policy group that serves the governments of metropolitan Phoenix, what its highway plans were for Phoenix’s burgeoning western edge. MAG studied the zones pegged for growth and identified the need for a highway from I-10 north to Wickenburg, which MAG named the Hassayampa Freeway in its 2007 plan. MAG also identified a pressing need to streamline the route to Las Vegas.
U.S. 93 was not adequate, said Bob Hazlett, the senior engineer in MAG’s transportation division who has become something of a cheerleader for the proposed freeway. To MAG’s engineers, U.S. 93 formed a rough sketch of a new interstate, but the idea picked up speed when the Federal Highway Administration OK’d the Hoover Dam bypass and adjacent improvements on U.S. 93. In 2009, the RTC of Southern Nevada passed a resolution coinciding with similar resolutions from the city of Las Vegas and several Arizona transportation agencies to support a future Interstate 11.
The Interstate 11 project isn’t particularly well known among rank-and-file citizens. But some of the heaviest hitters in Arizona and Nevada politics and business have become committed to getting the road built. With that kind of DNA, the highway’s realization is probably a lock, at least someday. Here’s a roundup of some of its chief supporters:
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. The Senate majority leader guided the I-11 designation onto the 2012 transportation bill that passed the U.S. Senate in March but stalled in the House of Representatives. Since the designation appropriates no money, its passage is likely, one way or another, according to transportation-policy experts. (The designation is useful for planning by multiple agencies in the region.) Reid is expected to really go to bat later to make U.S. highway funds available.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The senior member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has already expressed her support for the relief I-11 would give Interstate 5, California and the West’s main north-south freight corridor. A natural disaster along I-5 could virtually wipe out all shipping in the West. Even on a good day, it can barely handle its commercial traffic.
Mary E. Peters: The Secretary of Transportation in the George W. Bush administration and former director of the Arizona Department of Transportation says strong links between cities form the foundation for a strong economy. She says Texas built effective highway infrastructure and consequently is recovering from the recession faster than the rest of the country. She now sits on the Arizona Commerce Authority board and heads a public-policy consulting firm.
Jerry Colangelo. Possibly the most powerful private citizen in Arizona, he is credited with bringing the NBA’s Suns and baseball’s Diamondbacks to Arizona, as well as revitalizing downtown Phoenix. He currently chairs Arizona’s powerful Commerce Authority board. His business interests have moved westward with Phoenix’s growth, and his development company, JDM Partners, has vast holdings along the proposed route of Interstate 11 west of Phoenix.
The Interstate 11 Coalition, a private group of business leaders and public-policy experts who actively promote the concept of a Phoenix-Las Vegas interstate. The current chairman is Steve Betts, the retired CEO of SunCor Development Co. Among the coalition’s members are Colangelo, Peters, Eddie Basha (the owner of the largest independent grocery chain in Arizona and a former candidate for governor); and former Phoenix Mayor Paul Johnson.
Gov. Jan Brewer, R-Ariz. A major supporter, she helped push a bill through the Arizona Legislature that paved the way for public/private toll roads, the presumed funding mechanism for I-11. She also named I-11 booster Colangelo to the state’s Commerce Authority board.
Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. The longtime leader sees opportunities for Las Vegas “to make tons of money” as a free port that ties into Long Beach, Calif., and Punta Colonet in Mexico.
Municipalities. Towns and cities that expect to be along the final route tend to favor the idea. Big optimists are Buckeye and Wickenburg, Ariz., which will profit from being the anchors of the proposed Hassayampa Freeway. Boulder City is supportive, but more cautiously because of fears that I-11 could deluge it with unwanted traffic.
Transportation departments. ADOT, NDOT and local transportation departments support the plan, because they increasingly confront gridlock and dread a bigger population without I-11. Both the Arizona and Nevada transportation departments are already planning for the new highway, even though no firm route has been determined. The joint study is a major step forward, but such delicate hurdles as financing and route selection remain—along with a federally required environmental-impact study.
Nobody’s leading a charge against I-11, but there are reasons it may not happen as soon as we think.
• The price tag. The biggest stumbling block is figuring out how much the freeway will cost and how to pay for it. It’s not a simple calculation. Traditionally, new interstate highways are paid for with federal highway funds. But very few highways are being funded, largely because the federal piggy bank has become so depleted. Highway funds are raised through gasoline taxes, but with the recession, travel dollars are down. At the same time, vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient, resulting in less revenue.
Highway construction costs are inconsistent because of differences of terrain, climate and other variables, but a rough model indicates that constructing a six-lane interstate would run almost $9 million per mile in rural areas and $15 million per mile in urban areas, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. In addition to construction, costs include land acquisition and financing. It’s estimated that the Hassayampa Freeway alone could cost $5 billion.
• Who pays? Creative financing will be obligatory. With a cash-strapped Federal Highway Administration and barren state treasuries, the funding solution will likely be some public/private combination involving tolls, say transportation experts. The idea is that freight haulers would pay to avoid congestion.
“If public funds were there, that’s where people would look, but the [federal] Highway Trust Fund is running short for maintaining existing highways, let alone spending on a highway not yet built,” former Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters says. “We have to look at a variety of funding options. I doubt it would make it with just private investment either.” Pressure exists to iron out the route quickly, so land can be snatched up while real estate values are down. Some developers are so eager that they are willing to donate their land to the right-of-way to get I-11 moving.
• Environmental impact. Every federal highway project requires an environmental impact study before it can go forward. Estimated to cost $7 million for the I-11 project, the greater expense could be the discovery of new problems, such as threats to protected species. The Sierra Club, a potential opponent, is taking a wait-and-see approach for now.
“We are concerned because whenever you have a new freeway it causes more habitat fragmentation for wildlife and challenges air quality,” says Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “But there’s been no plan expressed yet on I-11, and we are monitoring it for now. At this point, it’s on the radar—and we are concerned.”
What lies immediately ahead is the joint study by the state DOTs, the first official I-11 joint project. It will assess whether a need actually exists for I-11. It will look at freight and other traffic now and into the future, and will examine possible financing strategies. In any case, no recommendations will appear for another two years, as the meticulous work gets done. Right now, the DOTs are selecting consulting firms for the work.
The studies are likely to settle a lot of open questions concerning cost, timing and the final route. They are expected to show the impending demographic nightmare and will project how much freight traffic can be expected in the coming years. Estimates for completing I-11 seem to be anyone’s guess and at this point, guesses range from 10 to 30 years.
For now, I-11 remains an imaginary highway, a yellow brick road. But the consensus among planners is that the need is obvious, the studies will confirm it and the public/private financing plans that have succeeded in other locales, such as Texas, will succeed here, too.