Officials in California, Nevada try a quick fix for a slow-moving problem

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Drivers returning to the Los Angeles area after a weekend in Las Vegas often face a 10-hour drive -- or roughly double the amount of time it takes when Interstate 15 is not congested.
Drivers returning to the Los Angeles area after a weekend in Las Vegas often face a 10-hour drive -- or roughly double the amount of time it takes when Interstate 15 is not congested. Photo Credit: ddisq/Shutterstock.com
Paul Szydelko
Paul Szydelko

The governors of Nevada and California earlier this month announced a plan to add a lane to a portion of Interstate 15 between Las Vegas and Southern California, what they admit is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

Any improvements can’t come soon enough for fed-up Los Angeles-area residents who often face a 10-hour drive home from Vegas on Sundays and holiday Mondays, not to mention the Las Vegas business owners who fear those visitors won't return after spending so much of their weekend on a traffic-choked roadway. It’s a drive that takes four to five hours when it’s not congested.

"People have got to be able to get to a location to be able to enjoy what we have to offer," Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said at the Global Gaming Expo in October. "Here in Nevada, if you go I-15 to Southern California on the weekends, that's just like a parking lot, there's so much traffic. We need to lighten that."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said a five-mile stretch of the southbound shoulder about five miles south of the state line will be repaved and restriped to become a third traffic lane during peak hours.

“There is a deep urgency for us to meet this moment,” Newsom said.

Logistics, such as defining peak hours and how first responders would get to emergencies if the shoulder is being used as a travel lane, will be discussed over the next several months.

Relief expected by the spring

The project, to cost $12 million from California’s budget, is expected to provide some relief by spring and be completed by the end of summer.

It’s one of four areas between the state line and Baker, Calif., in which I-15 reduces from three lanes to two lanes then back to three lanes. The resulting backup often stretches for 20 miles at peak times.

“This five-mile stretch of highway is a critical piece of infrastructure for not only our two states but for the whole country,” Newsom said. “However, the hours of traffic deter tourism and goods movement. While this is just a temporary solution, the expansion is crucial for continued economic health and resilience in the region and beyond.”

Nevada officials lauded the move.

“This a major step forward while we continue to collaborate and work toward more permanent solutions,” Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak said.

Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman, who has led the chorus of those seeking attention to the frequent gridlock, was optimistic that the recently passed infrastructure bill can address the larger problem in the region.

“I feel like I’ve been talking about this since I was college. But the reality is, oh my goodness, thank heavens, finally! … ,” Goodman said.

Solution is only a 'Band-Aid'

She noted that more work is required, especially considering the effects of congestion on freight movement in addition to tourism.

“This is a Band-Aid when we need a tourniquet, ” Goodman said.

Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said improving Strip and regional transportation are among his priorities.

“This initiative is an important first step that will begin to improve the experience of the 10 million visitors to Las Vegas [annually] who use this corridor. We know this will be exciting news celebrated by all who drive I-15 during peak travel times,” Hill said.

That 10 million represents about one-quarter of the city's annual visitation. During the height of the pandemic with airline travel down, drive-in traffic became especially important to Las Vegas' rebound and approached pre-pandemic levels by the fall of 2020, tourism officials said.

While this is one relatively cheap and simple step to ease congestion, one long-considered solution is Brightline West, a private, electric, high-speed rail project that could eventually run between Las Vegas and Southern California. No timeline has been announced for that project.

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