The Case for Interstate 11

As the second Obama term begins, Nevada’s wish list should start with a vital connection to the south

After playing a key role in President Obama’s re-election, Nevadans may be expecting the administration to shower the state with federal largesse in the coming four years. Unfortunately, securing federal dollars is not as simple as a powerful politician turning on the appropriations spigot. If that were the case, certainly a state represented by the Senate majority leader would not continually rank last in securing census-based federal dollars.

Indeed, the ability of the Obama administration to juice up Nevada’s federal appropriations is hampered by two factors. First, a good deal of federal money that is available to the states requires funding matches. Since Nevada is notoriously tightfisted in the policy areas—i.e., education, welfare and health care—where federal money is contingent upon state contributions, the state receives very little from these programs.

Second, Nevada’s applications for federal dollars are often either rejected or the state fails to apply. Take for instance the two rounds of grants totaling $1 billion for the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training initiative, a program that funds work-training partnerships between community colleges and local employers. The state’s first-round application, filed by the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE), was deemed unqualified. For round two, it does not appear that NSHE even applied. As a consequence, the state with the highest unemployment rate is receiving the minimum award; the same as a non-state, Puerto Rico.

Fortunately, there is one federal project where Nevada’s lift is relatively easy—particularly compared with the benefits that the state will accrue—and that’s Interstate 11 between Las Vegas and Phoenix. As Arizona writer Kate Nolan detailed in Vegas Seven in June, while the idea of connecting two of the largest urban centers in the country not linked by the interstate system has been discussed for some time, the project’s development has been hindered by environmental and financing concerns. (Not to mention the difficulty of coordinating a host of bureaucratic and political actors at the state and federal levels.)

At the same time, there are reasons for optimism. The project is clearly on the federal radar as the Obama administration has signaled that Interstate 11 is an infrastructure priority. Also, the transportation bill passed by Congress in June included official designation of the interstate, which should expedite completion of the various studies required before the road can be built. Moreover, in writing the legislation that allows Arizona and Nevada to apply for interstate highway funds, Sen. Harry Reid’s office removed any time limits for these requests.

If fully completed, Interstate 11 will run from Phoenix to either Portland, Oregon, or to the Canadian border by way of Idaho. The immediate priority, though, is the stretch between Las Vegas and Phoenix. For this phase of the project, Nevada is responsible for the link from the Hoover Dam bypass to either Interstate 515 in Henderson, a distance of 19 miles, or a 30-mile route running along the east side of the Valley and terminating at Interstate 15 in North Las Vegas. In contrast, Arizona is on the hook for the other 250 or so miles between the Arizona-Nevada border and Interstate 10 west of Phoenix.

The project will provide a number of benefits to the region. For those who regularly drive between Las Vegas and Phoenix, driving times will be reduced by an hour. The ability of the 200,000-plus residents of Mohave County, Arizona, to easily access goods and services in Las Vegas will boost Clark County’s sales-tax revenue and potentially increase the number of northern Arizona travelers flying in and out of McCarran International Airport.

Interstate 11 is also consistent with Gov. Brian Sandoval’s economic development program, which has identified logistics and operations as a key industry sector. Phoenix is already a major shipping hub, and once the port in Punta Colonet, Mexico, is completed, the need for warehousing, freight logistics and distribution centers will increase. That means more business investment and job creation in Southern Nevada.

Lastly, Interstate 11 is the final ground connection linking the three corners of the Southwest Triangle: Southern California, central and northern Arizona, and Southern Nevada. Absent Interstate 11, we tend to think of these geographic spaces as discrete locales with minimal shared interests. With Interstate 11, we are more likely to think in terms of a unified region containing the country’s second-most populous concentration of people, exceeded only by the Northeast Corridor.