With virtually everyone against it, NDOT scraps plan to run I-11 through Lake Mead Rec Area

With virtually everyone against it, NDOT scraps plan to run I-11 through Lake Mead Rec Area
The eastern routes under consideration were probably doomed from the start. (Nevada Department of Transportation I-11 video screengrab)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current
August 25, 2021

LAS VEGAS–For years the Nevada Department of Transportation has proposed building a new highway system for the Interstate 11 Corridor that would run through the City of Henderson and protected public lands, including Rainbow Gardens and the Lake Mead Recreation Area.

Those plans, known as the “eastern alternative corridor,” have now been abandoned after ongoing public backlash, according to the department.

“The eastern corridor alternative was dismissed from further consideration for a number of reasons, including potential impact to sensitive environmental resources and protected areas, access, mobility, connectivity, financial feasibility, and public opposition,” said Ryan McInerney, director of Communications & Government Affairs for NDOT.

During the project scoping phase, a period used to identify and develop corridor alternatives, nearly 79% of all comments received from the public were related to the eastern alternative and 80% of those comments were in opposition.

The City of Henderson publicly opposed the eastern corridor options that ran along residential neighborhoods in the city, pushing for eastern alternatives farther away from neighborhoods or planned projects. 

Rural Henderson residents largely opposed the highway outright, however, saying the proposed route would eliminate recreation at Rainbow Gardens and the River Mountain Loop Trail in eastern Henderson.

“We moved here because it was away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s quiet, peaceful, and safe. The view out our back door is beautiful. We get to soak in the beauty our city offers us. Putting in a freeway is the most disgusting thing you can do to our neighborhood. Where will we take family walks and hikes? Where will my children learn about the desert,” said Brittanie Still, a resident in eastern Henderson.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority also sent a letter to NDOT with concerns about the eastern alternative impacting water infrastructure within or adjacent to the proposed corridor, including pumping stations, reservoirs, rate of flow control stations, water treatment facilities, and numerous buried pipelines.

Clark County also noted the importance of avoiding placing a highway near the Wetlands Park, which serves as a natural water filter for excess water returning to Lake Mead.

The green lines represent the eastern corridors no longer being proposed by the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), while the blue line represents the proposed western alignment and the red line represents the central alignment. (NDOT map)

Other proposed eastern alignments for the planned freeway went through Rainbow Gardens east of the Las Vegas Valley, a region classified by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an “area of critical environmental concern,” largely due to the presence of the Las Vegas bearpoppy, a rare native desert flower that has disappeared across much of the Mojave Desert. The National Park Service also noted that the Lake Mead Recreation Area has protected status, meaning a route cannot go through the area if there is another “feasible and prudent option.”

Conservation groups see the elimination of the eastern alternative as a win for the protection of critical wildlife habitat.

“We are pleased that NDOT responded to public pressure and abandoned the plan to blast a highway through a national park unit and essential habitat for endangered species,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Nevada state director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Our protected areas are closed for business to developers and highway builders.”

The two remaining options for the highway are the western alternative corridor, which would extend westward along existing I-11 from the Nevada-Arizona border to the I-215 before continuing further west along the I-215 to northwest Las Vegas, or the central alternative corridor which would extend along the existing I-11 from the Nevada- Arizona border to the I-215 and extend further north along the I-515 to the spaghetti bowl interchange before continuing northerly along the U.S.-95.

The eastern alternative may have been doomed from the start due to a lack of financial feasibility, access, mobility and connectivity.

Nearly 45% of the proposed route for the eastern alternative would require the construction of new bridges and interchanges within mountainous and treacherous terrain, putting the cost of the eastern alternative at a whopping $2.42 billion compared to a $406 million cost for the central alternative and $320 million cost for the western alternative.

Broken down, the eastern alternative was estimated to be six times as expensive as the central alternative and almost eight times as expensive as the western alternative, according to a report by NDOT

The Eastern Corridor would have also been the longest of the three corridor alternatives and would carry substantially lower daily traffic volumes than the other two alternatives due to its relative isolation from the greater Las Vegas Area, making the cost per corridor mile and cost per user a “very high” and impractical investment.

Public comment for the future development of I-11 started on Aug. 17 and closes on Sept. 30. NDOT is encouraging community input at their open public online meeting for the two current corridor alternatives and the overall project.

Congress mandated I-11 as a future interstate between Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas as part of a greater plan to link Mexico and Canada via a transportation network and strengthen trade across the western United States. Although this designation does not guarantee funding it does improve the chances for obtaining federal funds.

The project is meant to increase mobility between states and lure economic opportunities to the Las Vegas metropolitan area, but conservationists argue it’s not just the eastern alternative that could harm Southern Nevada’s environment.

Donnelly says the state needs “to consider what the impacts of I-11 will be on the Las Vegas Valley, no matter where it’s sited.”

“This will inevitably impact air quality in Clark County, which is already among the worst in the nation,” Donnelly said. “We need any proposal for Interstate 11 to come with a comprehensive plan for decarbonizing travel along the route, and ensuring that the increased use of Las Vegas as a transit hub will not condemn frontline communities to choke on fossil fuel pollution.”

The construction of the high capacity transportation corridor would likely mean increased long-haul trucking, raising the prospect of the city becoming a major transportation hub, and more 18-wheelers, which already account for a large amount of the Nevada transit sector’s greenhouse gases. Las Vegas currently sits in the only air basin in the state that does not meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality standards for ozone, which state regulators say is largely due to current transportation emissions, and air quality is only getting worse from increasing frequency and severity of wildfires.

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