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Sightseers Bypass Hoover Dam’s U.S. 93 for Sweet Alternative

Sat April 22, 2000 - West Edition
Suzanne B. Bopp

There’s no doubt that the Hoover Dam is one of the most spectacular man-made sights in the world — but many people who drive over it just want to get to the other side as fast as possible. That’s because U.S. Highway 93, which crosses the top of the dam, also is the major commercial corridor between Arizona, Nevada and Utah. In addition, the road is on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) route between Mexico and Canada.

That adds up to a lot of traffic — about 14,000 vehicles per day. That number has doubled in the last 15 years, due to the tremendous growth of the southwest, and of Las Vegas and the state of Nevada in particular. Safety hazards have resulted from the excessive traffic: higher levels of risk for motorists, pedestrians, the water stored in the dam and even the structure itself. Compounding those problems are the inadequacies of the existing roadway: sharp turns and switchbacks, inadequate shoulders, poor sight distance and low travel speeds. The road is so narrow that a truck must stop if meets another truck at a curve. Bottlenecks and delays mean lost time and money for industries transporting goods and services — but the closest alternative four-lane commercial route is in California, a detour of 400 kilometers (250 mi.).

All of these troubles have not gone unnoticed; for years, there has been talk of how to remove the traffic from the dam. “Probably the day Hoover Dam was completed, somebody said, ’Hey, this road isn’t going to work for long,’ ” said Dave Zanetell, the delivery manager for a solution long in coming: a project to bypass the Hoover Dam, and the steep and narrow roadway into it, with three miles of new roadway plus a new 570-meter (1,900 ft.) bridge over the Colorado River. The new road will stretch from the rim of one side of the canyon to the other, four lanes with a 60 mile per hour speed limit. It will be located 510 meters (1,700 ft.) downstream from the crest of the dam and 60 meters (200 ft.) above it.

Construction for the project is set to begin sometime in 2002. Right now the plans are going through the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) phase. That began with three alternatives (plus a no-build alternative) in a draft EIS, which was presented to the public for comment; public hearings were held in Kingman, Boulder City and Las Vegas and the comment period closed in November 1998. Those three alternatives were the culmination of a serious initiative by the Bureau of Reclamation to solve the dam problem, which began back in the 1960s and involved corridor studies and site evaluations. The bureau later withdrew when its emphasis shifted more toward water resource management and away from construction of major public works projects; the project was put on hold.

In 1997, state governors and congressmen from both Nevada and Arizona appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to resurrect the project. The need remained, in fact was greater than ever. A federal appropriation that had already been allocated to evaluate the removal of truck traffic from the dam was approved to resume the studies. That’s when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) got involved. “We were asked to take over and complete the EIS,” Zanetell said, referring to the Central Federal Lands Highway Division for which he works. It is an operating unit of the FHWA that works for federal land agencies. In this case, the project is entirely on federal land: the dam is operated and maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation and surrounded by Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

The result of the draft EIS process proved the Sugarloaf Mountain alternative was preferred (over the Promontory Point alternative and the Gold Strike Canyon alternative). The Sugarloaf Mountain alternative was the winner in the three categories in which it was compared to the others: comments from the public, as well as local, state and federal agencies; consideration of environmental impacts; and consideration of the project’s need and purpose.

Zanetell said they’ve received strong comment from a majority of the public describing what a problem traveling over the dam can be. But there are those speaking for the other side. “We also have the Sierra Club,” he said. “It’s part of their mission statement to be opposed to all new roads. We’ve had many meetings with them. We’re trying to understand their issues to make sure we’re not missing something.”

A final EIS is the next step. In preparing it, the FHWA will have to coordinate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State Historic Preservation Offices in Nevada and Arizona to prepare mitigation plans for any adverse impacts to wildlife and cultural resources. Native American Indian tribes will also be involved. Some concern exists over the project’s implications for the “cultural landscapes” and the historic setting and landscape of the Hoover Dam area. The final EIS will also take into consideration practical matters such as the viewing opportunities of the dam from the proposed bridge and associated traffic and safety concerns.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already issued a biological opinion that the endangered species in the area would likely not be affected by the proposed construction. But to mitigate possible effects on the threatened desert tortoise, the opinion stipulated the turtles’ relocation from the construction zone; the minimization of soil compaction and erosion and destruction of vegetation; and a contribution of $47,000 to their preservation fund to compensate for the loss of 80 acres of habitat.

The final EIS, which is to be completed this summer, will be submitted for another public comment period. Then a Record of Decision will officially announce the course of action chosen and the project will move into the design stage.

About $40 million of a total $200-million budget (in 2002 dollars), will go to expenses such as design; $160 million is slated for construction. That money will come from a variety of state and federal agencies; some special federal highway funding is needed because of federal ownership of the river crossing. The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century will provide $41 million under the “High Priority Projects Program.”

The states of Arizona and Nevada will continue to seek additional federal funding through two other federal programs: one that serves federal land projects, one that serves projects that benefit national trade corridors and interstate corridors. Both states have committed funds, but agree this project is largely a federal responsibility and shouldn’t compete for funding with other state projects. Alternative funding sources also are being studied, as much of the money is still to be found. “At this point, it’s pretty typical that a project not have all the money in the bank,” Zanetell said.

Zanetell plans to complete the project with several sequential contracts. “The project lends itself to segmentation,” he said. “There’s two distinct types of work: the earthwork, blasting, rock and roadwork on approaches, then the bridge itself, which requires a different type of contractor.” Zanetell foresees advertising for bridge contractors when the approaches are nearly complete. “The approaches will serve as staging for the bridge work,” he said.

Zanetell is enthusiastic about the construction ahead. “This is going to be a great opportunity for the construction industry to be innovative in equipment selections and utilizations,” he said. “Those will separate contractors come bid day.” He foresees a need for specialized and unique equipment on this job. “The alignment of the new road is independent from the existing roadway. It will require heavy, oversized equipment — mining-type equipment.”

The project will naturally present some challenges, though Zanetell prefers to think of them as opportunities. Coordinating with all involved parties and meeting everyone’s expectations will be one. In the construction phase, Zanetell predicts high winds at the job site might prove a complication, particularly during the bridge erection. High temperatures — and high temperature variations — could pose problems for concrete activity and steelwork. “And there are numerous sensitive facilities with respect to power generation from the dam,” he said. “We’ll need to be very cautious not to impact transmission.”

Once the project is complete, there will be no more truck traffic allowed on the dam; dam visitors will have that portion of the road to themselves. And they’ll have a good view of the new bridge too.

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