So much transportation-related construction will be underway in Nevada this year that one of the most closely watched initiatives is one that puts technology to use to reduce the frustrations faced by motorists stuck in construction delays. Several of the state’s most-traveled intersections — the Centennial Bowl and the Interstate 15 Tropicana Avenue interchange in Las Vegas, the Spaghetti Bowl interchange in Reno — will be among the sites of substantial construction this summer and autumn.
The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) leads the way with $574 million budgeted for construction during the state’s current fiscal year. Along with work at the Centennial Bowl, I-15 and Spaghetti Bowl, major NDOT projects include continuation of the $100 million interchange project at I-15 and the I-215 Beltway in North Las Vegas and a $39 million rehabilitation of a viaduct at Interstate 15 and Eastern Ave. in downtown Las Vegas, said NDOT Director Kristina Swallow.
Among the projects are some stunning engineering achievements. The Centennial Bowl, for instance, will include 20 bridges over three decks, including a half-mile long northwest connector that will be the state’s second-longest bridge when the project is completed in early 2024.
Regional transportation authorities have big projects on the books, too. The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada alone has 53 road projects underway across the region this year, representing an investment of $304 million. They range from bicycle paths in Boulder City to the $109 million budgeted this year for reconstruction of Las Vegas Boulevard near downtown.
RTC funds the projects, and they are implemented by local governments.
This year’s work represents about 50 percent more spending than the agency’s average of approximately $200 million a year during the last five years. And the local governments with which RTC works will have another 39 projects totaling about $277 million under construction in the next 12 months.
“This is a great amount of work on the horizon that not only creates and maintains critically needed jobs, but it will also allow us to maintain our valley roadways, improve safety, reduce congestion and increase capacity,” said MJ Maynard, the chief executive officer of the Southern Nevada RTC.
But all the work means delays, too. To help motorists and pedestrians through all the construction, the Southern Nevada RTC is working with local governments to combine imaging and software tools to monitor and measure roadway construction zones. Their goal is to use that information to mitigate the severity of slowdowns. Those efforts will be particularly critical, Maynard noted, as autonomous vehicles increasingly are deployed. Self-driving vehicles will rely on monitoring of construction work to plan and understand their routes. The RTC itself will play a role in the rollout of self-driving vehicles with its GoMed project, a test of four self-driving shuttles that will circulate between downtown and the Las Vegas Medical District. It’s scheduled for launch in 2023.
In the Reno-Sparks area, the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County is undertaking two major projects this year along with a multitude of smaller jobs. Brian Stewart, the agency’s director of engineering, said work begins in June on a year-long project to expand Lemmon Drive in Reno’s fast-growing North Valleys. The project reworks the Lemmon Drive interchange at U.S. 395, widens the busy roadway from four lanes to six lanes and adds bicycle lanes and sidewalks.
Later this summer, RTC begins improvement of Oddie Boulevard, the heavily used corridor in Sparks, from its intersection with Pyramid Way. The work extends west to Wells Avenue, then down Wells to its intersection with Interstate 80. The project includes a new bike path and multi-use paths — they’ll tie into the pathway system at the University of Nevada, Reno, campus — along with improved lighting, landscaping and accessibility.
“We have an opportunity to reconfigure the roadway in a way that will really transform the corridor, not only for drivers, but especially for pedestrians and bicyclists,” Stewart said. “With the addition of trees, new landscaping, lighting, and safety improvements, the RTC’s additions will create an inviting corridor for our community.”
In all, RTC Washoe expects to spend about $112 million on construction this year — a relatively big year, given the two major projects — and Stewart said its construction budgets look strong for the next couple of years. In fact, all the projects that RTC currently has in design or under construction are fully funded for completion.
Traffic pressures on the Spaghetti Bowl intersection of I-80 and I-580 already have been relieved to some degree by RTC’s completion of Veterans Parkway — it used to be called the Southeast Connector — along the southeast edge of the Reno-Sparks metro area. It provides a fast alternative for travelers from south Reno to the east side of Sparks, a route that avoids the Spaghetti Bowl entirely.
RTC’s board just approved a plan to meet growing traffic needs in the next 30 years. Among the more-immediate projects in that plan, Stewart says, are expansions of Lemmon Drive and Sky Vista Parkway in the North Valleys, Sparks Boulevard and a new connector between Pyramid Highway and U.S. 395 in the Spanish Springs area.
Air travelers also will encounter construction as Nevada’s two largest airports undertake expansion and improvement projects.
Reno-Tahoe International Airport this summer continues with the largest construction project in its history — reconstruction of its north-south runways. The $65.8 million project began in 2017 and was designed in phases to take advantage of federal funding cycles as well as the airport’s own resources.
About 500 people — everyone from airline executives to FAA employees to private pilots — are on the distribution list for e-mails that detail construction schedules and runway closures. Granite Construction has won contracts for the work.
At the same time, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority is readying of a $40.8 million project to rebuild 46 acres of aircraft parking aprons — the equivalent of 35 football fields, including their end zones — at Reno-Stead Airport. Along with their use as parking spaces for general-aviation aircraft, the aprons provide display areas during the National Championship Air Races and Air Show at the facility at the north edge of the Reno metro area. Road & Highway Builders LLC handled the first phase of the reconstruction.
Daren Griffin, president and CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, said “unwavering support” from Nevada’s Congressional delegation was instrumental for federal funding that is critical for both projects.
Next up for the airport is a major renovation of the ticketing hall which hasn’t been renovated since a $63 million expansion project in 2010, and it was often crowded in pre-pandemic days. Design of the project begins this year, and plans call for a 43 percent increase in space for passengers to wait in line, improved pedestrian circulation and space for self-check kiosks and vending. The price tag is estimated at $17.5 million. In all, the Reno airport expects to spend $49 million this year alone on those multi-year projects.
“With the influx of people moving to northern Nevada and eastern California, the airport will return to pre-COVID passenger levels soon and needs to be prepared for the continued growth of passengers,” Griffin said.
Construction budgets at McCarran International Airport were cut dramatically — to $35 million in 2021 from $90 million a year earlier —as a result of the pandemic. Half of the airport projects in development were placed on hold, said Layne Weight, assistant director for construction and engineering at the Clark County Department of Aviation.
Major renovation of the C Concourse at McCarran is the biggest project currently underway. Fewer passengers through the airport during the pandemic allowed the work to move ahead of schedule, Weight said.
The airport is also in the early stages of a project to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety by separating vehicle and pedestrian traffic at Terminal 1. And farther over the horizon — like 20 years over the horizon — is the long-term plan to build a new commercial airport, the Southern Nevada Supplemental Airport, south of Las Vegas.
Even as they manage a full slate of major projects this summer, transportation executives wrestle with some manageable short-term issues and some very large long-term worries.
RTC Washoe, for instance, is closely monitoring prices and supplies of plastic pipe after extreme winter weather in Texas shut down some production plants, and the blockage of the Suez Canal in March disrupted supply chains.
NDOT struggles to fill some open construction-administration jobs because of the shortages of skilled construction workers, relying on consulting contracts to fill the gaps.
The suspended projects at McCarran International, meanwhile, could come back quickly when passenger numbers recover or federal infrastructure dollars arrive, but a fast rebound brings a new set of worries.
“We are anticipating a situation where businesses all look to resume projects at the same time, which will create a challenge with contractor availability,” said Weight.
Among the challenges facing RenoTahoe Airport is the limited number of contractors with the specialized skills and high bonding capacity to handle airport construction.
But those issues pale against the big worries about transportation funding in a fast-growing state. Swallow said vehicle traffic on the 5,000 miles of state roadway increased 30 percent in a recent 10-year period, another 30 percent increase is predicted in the next 10 years.
The population of the Reno-Sparks area, for instance, has more than tripled since the Spaghetti Bowl initially was built, and it’s projected to grow another 27 percent by 2040.
“Meanwhile, much of Nevada’s existing highway infrastructure is reaching an age when preservation is needed,” Swallow said. “As the state’s highways continue to age, the balance of funding new construction while preserving existing infrastructure is critical.”
Construction costs have nearly doubled since 2003, federal researchers found, and NDOT officials this spring are keeping a close eye on prices for the iron and steel that’s critical to many highway projects. Already, NDOT estimates that funding to meet transportation needs in the state falls short by about $530 million a year.
Fuel taxes — 18.4 cents a gallon in federal gas taxes, 17.65 cents for the state — make up a big share of funding for road projects in the state, but those tax rates have remained unchanged since the early 1990s.
At the same time, Swallow noted that growing numbers of electric and hybrid vehicles result in lower fuel sales — and reduced fuel-tax collections. Dramatic reductions in driving as a result of the pandemic also contributed to a 6 percent reduction in fuel-tax collections.
In fact, NDOT itself contributes to the pressure on fuel-tax funding as it plays an important role in creation of state polices — boosting telecommuting and use of mass transit, for example — that reduce greenhouse gases and improve sustainability.
Funding approaches that are less gasoline-centric have been under study by state leaders. In the short term, Swallow said federal infrastructure dollars might help Nevada meet some transportation needs.
The state is squeezing every dollar it can out of transportation assets. It’s leasing space, for example, along highways from Ely to Spring Creek to USA Parkway east of Sparks for telecommunications companies to install fiberoptic lines. As she makes her argument for better funding for NDOT, Swallow emphasized that highway construction projects provide an important economic boost to the state, particularly as it recovers from the setbacks of the COVID-19 pandemic. NDOT estimates that the contracts it’s approved since last October supported the equivalent of more than 3,000 fulltime jobs.
“Transportation and infrastructure projects support good-paying jobs and will be a critical part of sustained economic recovery for Nevada,” Swallow said.
Transportation planners recognize, however, that more asphalt isn’t always the answer. Along congested Eastern Avenue, for instance, RTC Southern Nevada collaborated with Clark County and the City of Henderson to test new technology that timed stoplights at 14 intersections to respond to changing traffic conditions. Once analysis of the test is complete, the technology might be rolled out to other busy streets.
“New technologies, when integrated into infrastructure, can potentially deliver greater capacity and a higher return on investment,” Maynard said. “Technology can be the new asphalt.”