Using L.A. Traffic Counts to Justify Sprawl in the Arizona-Nevada Desert

Congestion relief has nothing to do with Arizona and Nevada's zeal to expand U.S. Route 93 and rebrand it I-11. Photo: ##http://i11study.com/wp/##I-11 Study##
Congestion relief has nothing to do with Arizona and Nevada’s zeal to expand U.S. Route 93 and rebrand it I-11. Photo: ##http://i11study.com/wp/##I-11 Study##

A recent report by U.S. PIRG and the Frontier Group, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future,” examines 11 of the most wasteful, least justifiable road projects underway in America right now. Here’s the latest installment in our series profiling the various bad decisions that funnel so much money to infrastructure that does no good. 

Arizona and Nevada have proposed a $2.5 billion project to expand U.S. 93 through the desert between Phoenix and Las Vegas — a change that would mean the road could be added to the federal Interstate highway system and renamed I-11 — despite planners’ acknowledgments that barely any of the existing 200-mile road has any congestion at present, and that even under conditions of rapid traffic growth, that will not change substantially.

Justifications for building Interstate 11 often begin by noting that Phoenix and Las Vegas are the two largest adjacent U.S. cities that are not linked by an Interstate highway. But the two cities are linked by an existing highway — U.S. Route 93 — which may not boast the designation of “Interstate,” but is a four-lane divided highway for all but 45 miles of its length between Phoenix and Las Vegas. The remaining 45 miles largely traverse sparsely populated areas. The Interstate 11 project would widen those remaining stretches and make other modifications of varying scope to the entire length of the highway.

It is telling that in the official summary of reasons for constructing I-11, traffic and congestion are mentioned last, and only in terms of the potential of “reaching unacceptable levels of congestion, threatening economic competitiveness.” Recent trends in travel along the corridor show that at nearly all of the highway’s traffic counter locations, traffic growth has been slower than is forecast in project documents or has actually declined.

Arizona DOT and Nevada DOT show 12 locations between Phoenix and Las Vegas where projected traffic counts and actual traffic counts can be compared. In all 12 locations the DOTs projected that traffic would increase. In 10 of those locations traffic counts failed to reach DOT forecasts. In only two locations did traffic counts actually surpass the forecasted level; the only such location in Arizona was the six-mile stretch of U.S. 93 between the Nevada border and the remote Kingman Wash Road. In six locations along the route, traffic counts actually declined.

Indeed, the argument proponents make for I-11 seems to be as much about attracting more traffic to the Las Vegas-Phoenix corridor as reducing congestion.

The Corridor Justification Report released by the Nevada and Arizona Departments of Transportation claims that 9 percent of existing highways in the surrounding megaregion — which the report defines as reaching all the way to Los Angeles — were “unacceptably congested” in 2011. It claims that if no major road-building investment is made, and economic and population growth continue along current trend lines, 28 percent of the megaregion’s highways — again, many of them in the Los Angeles region — will be “unacceptably congested” by 2040. In other words, the justification for the project in the middle of the desert is based largely on expectations for worsening traffic in Los Angeles. Project proponents argue that I-11 will reduce congestion in this broader region by siphoning off interstate traffic that had once passed through southern California and directing it to the Phoenix-Las Vegas corridor instead.

Proponents of the project hope it will spur economic development by drawing long-distance truck traffic to the corridor. Regional economic-development planners have been trying since at least 1991 to take advantage of opportunities they see in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to create a high-capacity freight corridor running north-south between Canada and Mexico in the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.

Backers of the widening also include major real-estate developers along the highway route, who hope to build major new residential and commercial projects. One developer sees so much potential to develop sprawling housing and commercial projects in the desert between Las Vegas and Phoenix that he is offering to donate land on which to build the highway.

While construction of Interstate 11 might have a limited transportation benefit, other investments being made in the region are beating expectations at meeting pressing needs and could use additional support. From 2003 to 2013, Phoenix’s transit ridership rose 45.9 percent, from 50.3 million to 73.4 million trips. Its light rail system, opened in 2008, is already beating ridership expectations, a stark contrast with driving failing to reach forecasted levels. With 20 miles of track in place, there are plans to add 10 more miles in the next decade, and to triple ridership in the next 30 years.

Phineas Baxandall, senior policy analyst at U.S. PIRG, and Jeff Inglis, policy analyst at the Frontier Group, are co-authors of the report, “Highway Boondoggles: Wasted Money and America’s Transportation Future.”

  • Nick C

    One person’s “limited transportation benefit” is another’s transportation equity. The West is riddled with two-lane roads linking once-sleepy towns that are now major cities. Drivers deserve safe, high-speed connections between increasingly important destinations. Do what you need to do to prevent sprawl through zoning, tolling, whatever – but as someone who has experienced the torture that is driving between Phoenix and Vegas (on family visits, mind you, not for the purposes of recreation or gambling), this is hardly a boondoggle. It’s a project of national significance that just happens to be planned about 30 years too late.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’d rather see this money spent on developing a fast rail line between these two cities.

  • Kevin M

    Could this push by the two state DOT’s be motivated by getting the Fed to cover the expense of maintenance of this road?

  • andrelot

    Geez, I wish people on Streetsblog didn’t reflexively oppose any highway project because it is a highway.

    US-93 has become a major truck corridor between Mexico and areas up North in Las Vegas itself, Utah, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. It is a dangerous road. Converting it to Interstate would speed up traffic and greatly increase safety. It is a very different reason to build a highway (since most of it is on middle-of-nowhere) than blasting city blocks to build “sprawl”.

    On rural road alignments that connect far-away regions, safety and speed, alone, might justify building highway links instead of leaving then as dangerous 2, 3 or 4-lane roads full of at-grade crossings. That is why US (and many other countries including European ones) have full networks of highways that also comprise some rural sectors with little traffic. That is why highways like I-20 in West Texas or I-70 in CO and UT were built to begin with: traffic needs reliable infrastructure, trucks are dangerous on at-grade roads, and increased speed on rural areas is a real time-saving (as in not 3 minutes per trip, but 30 minutes per trip).

    I-11 is NOT a project to promote endless sprawl in either metro, even so because there are constraints on both ends of the alignment in Phoenix and even more in Las Vegas (the Colorado River and federal protected areas).

    These are the types of moment that make me put less credibility on Streetsblog, it pushes out very naive pieces ignoring that it is not always about commute, city life and transit! It is not always about urban aspects of transportation. This is a long-distance traffic oriented project.

  • andrelot

    Exactly. The only reason US-93 isn’t an Interestate is that in the 1950 is because the area was very underdeveloped at the time.

    Population 1950 (metro areas)
    Las Vegas – 83.042
    Phoenix – 63.720

    Population dez/2013 (estimation metro areas)
    Las Vegas – 2.062.254
    Phoenix – 4.312.932

    And truck traffic from Mexico skyrocketed.

    Phoenix is the 12th largest US metro area, Las Vegas the 30th, depending on the criteria you use, by population. These cities need an Interstate linking them.

    Funny thing is: the average density in both metros is actually higher than in places like Portland, Seattle or Boston metropolitan areas. They don’t have much “dense walkable” neighborhoods, but they also don’t have a lot of leafy suburbs with big lots and spare houses. As a result, they are more compact than places traditionally lauded on Streetsblog.

    Finally, development in the desert has a specially difficult thing to deal with, and it is called water. It is, for obvious reasons, impossible to just open a new subdivision and get water from the nearest lake or stream. There is only the Colorado, its lakes and other diversion projects. So, no, a I-11 won’t see massive exurbs bubling up along it, even if they wanted to, unless they secured water rights and then the permits to build water infrastructure, which big metros in the desert southwest are not willing to let happen easily for obvious reasons.

  • C Monroe

    I agree, most of the roadway is already built. Just a few grade separations and a few miles of bypasses and upgrades here and there.

  • andrelot

    Indeed, almost all of it is already 4-laned, but not grade-separated, which makes it dangerous in places like this:

    http://goo.gl/maps/v7PZu

  • C Monroe

    it is already a federal highway. Hence the US designation. It is just not at interstate grade level. By the way there are Interstates that do not meet the modern interstate guidelines, I-94 in many parts of Michigan

  • andrelot

    Or this http://goo.gl/maps/ybACf

    The major bottleneck was the Colorado River crossing, that was solved with the Hoover Dam Bypass opened in 2014, which took US-93 out of the way of the crest of Hoover Dam and its narrow curvy approach roads.

  • andrelot

    Two mountain ridges in between…

  • Alex Brideau III

    Well, there is a private HSR proposal for linking these two cities floating around out there. Apparently someone has done the engineering homework. I can’t imagine it will be cheap, though.

  • Sam

    While I agree that there should be safe travel for trucks and long distance travel my only question, if its just a few grade separations and some changes at conflict points, why does it cost $2.5 billion? Maybe if there are a bunch of separations, it makes sense but their use of LA congestion as part of the justification is reaching and congestion doesn’t seem to be the issue rather safety. It just seems excessive, also economic benefits in these and other reports are always overestimated. If they have their State DOT funds already dedicated to the project then if that’s what their decision-makers want, then they should move forward with it but no extra money should be kicked in by the fed’s to buy for the capital improvements. I’m just assuming there are better uses fro $2.5 billion.

  • andrelot

    60% of the cost are not on US-93 but access roads and some stacked interchanges on both ends

  • Exactly! Many highway expansion boondoggles have some better explanation for some part of the construction, and that then becomes a pretense for a lot of other expansion that isn’t as deserving of being a priority. The question here is whether this deserves to be pushing out $2.5 billion worth of other priorities.

  • G1991

    $2.5 billion would be a pretty good start.

  • Phantom Commuter

    Phoenix and Las Vegas are two of the largest cities in the U.S. without any passenger rail service. Both cities lost Amtrak service in the 1990’s. It’s time to link both of them with Los Angeles with state supported trains. U.S. 93 also needs to be improved for safety reasons.

  • mrcool1122

    A US Highway “designation” does not make it a “federal highway.” All highways, with few exceptions, are owned and maintained by the states. The Interstate Highway system is administered by the federal gov’t, which sets the general routes and provided the lion’s share of the funding, but the pavement on the ground is owned and maintained by state DOTs. The US Highway system is older. Its routes are designated by a consortium of the states, not the federal government, and they receive no special funding in their own right. The National Highway System comprises the highways (whether designated states, US, or interstate) the federal government wants its general highway funding to go to.

  • Jim Sarratori

    I totally agree. Love Streetsblog but I’m going to guess the author has never even driven on US-93. I’ve driven this freeway for years and its extremely dangerous, especially when raining. No one is going to bike hungover from Vegas to Phoenix, so better make it safer to drive on.

  • andrelot

    Since there isn’t any major city between them, and no legacy rail tracks either, throwing $ 2.5 billion would indeed be a typical “rail to nowhere’, enough to build a high-speed link out of Phoenix ending at some random point in the middle of the desert. TOD is not even an option because of water availability.

  • BlueFairlane

    I don’t get what’s dangerous about this location you’ve pegged. Sure, you have an at-grade crossing of a four-lane highway with a median. But that highway is virtually deserted. It’s been virtually deserted every time I’ve driven it. This location is only dangerous if cross-traffic purposefully sits in one spot and waits the minute or so it takes the nearest vehicle to get to them.

    Moreover, this area is empty. Where’s that cross-traffic going to come from? There are ghost towns there, and little enclaves of collapsing trailers where squatters live. But there isn’t much in the way of cross traffic.

  • BlueFairlane

    Again, what’s dangerous about this location? There are intersections like this all over the country in places far more densely populated. You’d have to work hard to get hit here. Do you have any data to suggest this stretch of highway sees an unusual number of wrecks?

    Of course, whoever put up that “Got Land” sign would love to see this go interstate. They’ve probably been waiting for that ever since I first passed this way 20 years ago, and the sun-seared landscape was packed with signs advertising the Golden Horseshoe Ranchoes, community of the future!

  • mjcrites

    Might want to wait and see how the water situation in Phoenix and Vegas goes before spending a bunch of money there.

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