Paved With Good Intentions

Think the Valley’s Roads are Hell? Here’s Why

Greg Blake Miller

In August 2000, when my wife was seven months pregnant, we moved into our first house, a little one-story place off the foot of Black Mountain in Henderson. It was—as first homes, in the nervous rationalizations of their purchasers, will be—the perfect nest, in a perfect location, just seven miles east of my parents' home. All we'd have to do to get the new kid to Grandma and Grandpa was swerve a few minutes down Horizon Ridge Parkway. At the time, Horizon Ridge was a hazardous patchwork of completed, partially completed, and temporary stretches of roadway. It crossed our mind that perhaps it was not a particularly good idea to entrust our lives, and the life of our unborn child, to this street. Then we decided that our fears were nonsense. The road, we told ourselves, would be done soon enough.

Today, Horizon Ridge Parkway is still a hazardous patchwork of completed, partially completed and temporary stretches of roadway. It runs 11 miles on a roughly east-west axis along the foot of the McCullough Range in the far south of the Valley. The mountains are nice to look at, but it's better not to take your eyes off the road. My wife and I have memorized 23 configurations of traffic cones. We have seen entire lanes appear and disappear, reduced to roadside rubble. We have merged from six-lane roads into two-lane roads. We have made sudden shifts from one side of the roadbed to the other, into lanes that just the day before were sending traffic the other way. This month, our son will be 4 1/2.

I have, as the years passed, developed a fascination with the apparent absurdity of this state of affairs. At one point, my fascination warmed into obsession; I began plying my wife with the same litany of complaints every time we drove down the road. One day, she sighed, and looked at me, and I knew from this look that I was becoming a bore. After that, I sent the obsession underground; it seemed to any outsider that my feelings about Horizon Ridge Parkway had cooled into mere curiosity. But deep down, that damn street was eating me alive.

• • •

This is the story of a parkway called Horizon Ridge, but it could just as easily have been the tale of a boulevard named Jones or a road called Ann. Even as the edges of the Valley differentiate themselves into communities with identities and dilemmas all their own, there are certain headaches that—charming thought—unite us all. Take a drive. Feel the love.

One hesitates to cloud with statistics what can be adequately seen with the eyes, but, in the interest of demonstrating that We Build A Lot of Roads and It Costs A Lot of Money, here, dear reader, are the clouds:

• In the fiscal year from July 2005-July 2006, the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC) expects to spend over $111 million on 31 projects; these range from sound wall installations to feasibility studies, but most of the money will be spent on building roads. (RTC—which gets its money from numerous tax sources—is the key public organization involved in funding arterial roadways; the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), meanwhile, deals primarily with highway and freeway projects.)

• RTC-funded projects in the City of Las Vegas will, according to Commission estimates, cost just under $7.5 million for fiscal year 2005-2006.

• RTC-funded projects in Henderson for fiscal year 2005-2006 are expected to run around $11.5 million.

• To give you an idea of how much a single, not terribly huge project costs, the widening of Eastern Avenue at the exit off Interstate 215 cost the county $1.5 million.

• According to the Clark County Public Works 2005 Road and Infrastructure Guide, the county completed 11 arterial roadway project contracts in 2004, at a cost of just under $21.7 million. Three resort corridor projects ran an additional $17 million.

• Clark County's road building projects added 235 asphalt lane-miles to the Valley in 2004, which is actually quite a lot, but strangely doesn't sound like that much to me, which leads me to my point that ...

• Public expenditures don't even begin to indicate the true extent of road construction in Southern Nevada, because RTC spends its money only on the most crucial projects—those in which public safety and/or the ability of Valley communities to remain connected with one another are most clearly at stake. Cities and the county, when they build on the public dime, usually get their money from RTC. On occasion, cities will use their own municipal funds to patch roads together or to complete lanes that can't be completed any other way; in general, though, while cities steer the planning and building of roads, they are not in the business of funding them. That leaves private business to pay for completion of all the roads the RTC doesn't fund. In a Valley whose boundaries are spreading too fast for the Thomas Guide to keep up, that means a whole lot of roads. And, while this approach makes a good deal of fiscal sense—enough sense that it is quite common in growing areas, particularly in the West—it can also generate just the kind of mess I've found on Horizon Ridge Parkway.

1. In Which I Talk to a Guy Who Knows What He's Talking About

Robert Herr is the lead traffic engineer for the City of Henderson. One imagines that the mention of Horizon Ridge Parkway makes him, like my wife, sigh. When I called him early this spring, I was trying, sincerely trying, to refrain from talking about my own driving adventures, to resist the temptation to make it all about me, to understand what it must be like for this man at neighborhood picnics when someone asks what he does for a living.

"I'd like to discuss the construction on Horizon Ridge," I said.


• • •

Many drivers are surprised to learn that the government does not pay for all of the roads. When RTC funding isn't available, each stretch of roadway is completed only when the land next to it is developed, and the developer picks up the tab. I'd already figured that much out before talking to Herr and project engineers Lance Olson and Matt Roybal last month at Henderson City Hall. But I believed, in the way that only a marginally knowledgeable outsider can believe, that the system was broken, irrevocably broken, and that, given that the system was irrevocably broken, it was unconscionable that no one had bothered to replace it with something else. Couldn't anyone see the absolute illogic of the prevailing logic? After all, I muttered to myself, what is a road? It is a way to get from one place to another. Thus, if there is a population center at Point A, and a supermarket for the people of that population center at Point Z, shouldn't Points B through Y be properly paved to allow safe and efficient transit from home to store? Why, then, do we build roads as if they are the front yards of individual businesses, necessary only when the business is built? As a fan of raw desert (and along Horizon Ridge, the views across the raw desert are particularly stunning), I always hoped that we could have a completed roadway without development of every last lot. As time went on, I was dismayed to find myself so weary of an incomplete road that I was suddenly, desperately, hoping for every last lot to be built up. Down with the desert. Just finish my road! Shame on me. Why does it have to be this way?

That's my battle cry, the call of a riled-up citizen, the kind of calls public officials hear with some frequency and know how to answer with a degree of unnerving dispassion:

It has to be this way, the experts tell me, because roads cost money.

And somebody has to pay for them.

And the city, by itself, can't.

In light of this not-really-news, the whole get-the-businesses-to-pay-for-the-roads thing sounds pretty brilliant, a tour-de-force of municipal dollar-stretching in which private interests pay for what is first and foremost a public good (yes, the road benefits them, but it benefits me even more). It's one of those cases in which truly clever thinking becomes so normalized that we forget how clever it is. But—share my awe for a moment—isn't this quite the Lex Luthor scheme? How does that conversation even work?

City: Would you like to have the road pass in front of your establishment?

Businessman: Why, yes, I would.

City: Then hire a road crew and build one.

In my mind's eye, I see poor Chef Luigi, at the precipice of his life's dream of a freestanding Piazza Linguine, frantically thumbing through the "paving" section of the Yellow Pages. This is a disingenuous and melodramatic vision in two ways: First, by the time Chef Luigi gets title to a chunk of prime Henderson soil, he's probably enough of a businessman to know what he's getting himself into. Second, I'm not really worried about Chef Luigi; I'm worried about getting my kid to Grandma's house. And I'd like to know why it's so bloody hard.

2. In Which I Find Out How the Real World Works

Fifteen years ago, Nevadans looked at the state's ongoing population boom and decided that they'd have to give their government some money to build roads. After voters signaled their approval in the 1990 general elections, the state legislature, in 1991, passed a raft of taxes to fund road construction. (Senate Bill 112, for those of you keeping score at home.) Roads would now receive specifically earmarked funds from sales taxes, new residential and commercial development taxes, and special taxes on gas, jet fuel, hotel rooms and car registrations. The RTC—which would be responsible for disbursing these funds—could then use the tax proceeds as leverage for bond sales. The money raised by the 1991 tax bill has been an irreplaceable boon to road building in Nevada, but it still cannot possibly pay for all of the region's needs.

Since, as we've learned, the RTC funds are prioritized for the most urgent projects, most roads wind up financial orphans, born in the minds of city planners, placed on a Master Streets and Highways Plan, and left to wait for private development—that is, private funding—and the (sometimes) delicate dance between public need and enlightened self-interest that makes the process (sometimes) work.

"This," Robert Herr tells me, "is how growth pays for growth..."

• • •

In the beginning, there is the land. Then somebody buys the land. Then cities approach landowners and say, We're going to build a road on your land. For some reason, this came as news to me, that these things don't generally begin with some Arcadian period when the city controls the soil and does with it as it pleases. Thus, in the earliest phases of road creation, city (or, depending on where you live, county) authorities tell the owners of raw land where the road will be, and remind them that when they develop their land, they'll be responsible for hiring a contractor and building the roadway adjacent to the development. That means putting in the traffic lanes (usually two of them) on their side of the road, plus curb, gutter, sidewalk and streetlights. (Water and sewer infrastructure is also put in at this stage.)

When owners have completed building their segment of road, they're expected to grant right-of-way—that is, rights to the piece of their land on which they've just built a road at their own expense—to the city. This system works because the city and the developer have a mutual interest in seeing that a road is built. Roads, fortunately, not only serve the public interest but also are necessary for good business. The city does, however, have certain blunt instruments it can use. For instance, if a developer refuses to build his segment of road or grant right-of-way, the city can deny the developer a building permit. For this reason, developers generally agree to build roads and grant rights-of-way.

The parcels along any given roadway, however, are not developed simultaneously. Some owners prefer to let their raw land remain vacant and accumulate value. Others don't have the money to build yet. Others have the money, but they don't know what to build with it. Landowners who are not developing their land have no responsibility to build roads. The city, meanwhile, cannot deny a building permit to someone who is not requesting one. Theoretically, this could result in certain parts of a new road being fully built and others not being built at all.

To ensure that there is at least a rudimentary continuous roadway, the city sometimes requests that a landowner who is developing a parcel complete not only the portion of road adjacent to his parcel, but also lay a temporary stretch of pavement to connect it to the next completed portion. If the undeveloped stretch is too long, and the developer is unwilling to take on this extra task, the city must use its own limited means to build temporary connecting stretches of road. These temporary roads have no curb, gutter or sidewalk, and are very often only two lanes wide—the bare minimum to connect one piece of road to the next.

When property on only one side of the road is developed, traffic along that stretch will often consist of one lane going each direction. If the need for more than this is particularly strong on that stretch of road, the city will ask a developer to build not only two lanes on his own side of the road, but one additional lane on the opposite side for traffic going the other way.

These are the realities of road-building in Southern Nevada. The result of this system is that the roads we drive on are often four lanes at one point, two at the next, then four again, and, maybe somewhere along the way, three. In front of the new supermarket, the street looks utterly urban and civilized, with turn lanes and nice wide sidewalks, while in front of the boulder-strewn vacant lot next door, there is nothing but a narrow ribbon of rutted pavement. When you pass from one stretch to the next, you have to merge in a hurry to avoid driving into the aforementioned boulders. This thick-then-thin-then-thick-again arrangement of the roadway is called the sawtooth effect, and Horizon Ridge Parkway, over the last five years, has been one of its greatest and most irksome examples.

3. In Which I Remember Nap Time

My son was born in October 2000. Almost immediately, he engineered a victory for himself on the battlefield of sleep. That is, we wanted him to sleep, and he did not want to sleep. At nighttime, crib-side, we could usually outlast him, but during the day he was indomitable. There was only one way to get him to take a nap. We had to put him in the car and drive to the end of Horizon Ridge.

Every day, at least once a day, sometimes twice, either my wife or I—both of us on weekends—slalomed around the traffic cones east of our home, squeezed through the bottleneck at the intersection of Horizon Ridge and Horizon Drive, executed a sudden jog leftward in front of the National Guard Armory, briefly rejoiced upon reaching a momentarily wide stretch just past Palm Hills, avoided the big semi parked by a sawtooth, and turned back only when the road ended at Paradise Hills. In those days, there was nothing but raw desert past that, undisturbed by roads or buildings of any kind, rugged and serene and gorgeous. Sometimes, inspired by the sight (and by the fact that our son was still not sleeping), we'd turn north and head off into old Henderson, driving clear out past ranch homes whose front yards were populated with hungry quail. But we always had to turn back. We could neither leave our house nor go home without contending with the adventure of Horizon Ridge.

When our son was particularly stubborn in his wakefulness, we would pass our house on the return trip and drive west, past the small promised land of Sun City MacDonald Ranch, where the presence of a single master developer had allowed the road long since to be completed and beautifully landscaped. (For similar examples of the advantages of One Big Developer, see Anthem, Seven Hills, Summerlin, Aliante, and similar bastions of lucky bastards. More on this later.) In 2000, before we knew a thing about how roads were built in our city, we believed that the day was coming soon, very soon, when all of Horizon Ridge Parkway would look the way it looked alongside Sun City.

On these drives, we would notice peculiar things, things like entire housing developments built maybe 50 yards back from the main road. These neighborhoods depend on Horizon Ridge for transportation, but their developers have not had to make any contribution to its construction. Thus fully populated subdivisions often feed into temporary gutterless, snake-slim two-lane stretches of Horizon Ridge. This phenomenon can be explained, at least in part, by normal patterns of neighborhood development, in which land closest to the roadside is set aside for commercial use until there are enough homes in the area to support business. That the pattern can be adequately explained, though, does not make it any less annoying: Large suburban neighborhoods rely on ragged little country roads; competition to merge grows fierce; tempers, on occasion, flare. (One small miracle of Horizon Ridge is that, according to Henderson Police Sergeant Rob McCorkle, the number of accidents has remained relatively low. McCorkle says that in some ways the construction and sawtooth conditions have helped by slowing traffic down and making clear the need for caution; police, in fact, worry that there will be more speeding—and thus more accidents—when the road is completed.)

Another strange thing you'll see along Horizon Ridge is the spectacle of The Building that Takes Forever to Build. This would be of only passing interest to drivers if it weren't for the fact that the builders of The Building that Takes Forever to Build wait until the last possible moment to complete their stretch of roadway, leaving a terrible, tangled, one-lane mess in front of their property. Over the months (and months, and months) the watchful commuter will see wood frame go up, and insulation, and stucco, and columns, and bronze cupolas, and palm trees, and lovely French windows, but no road. After all, the road can't help business much until the business is open, so it's preferable to put off road building expenses until just before the new building begins to generate receipts. The public interest comes into this somewhere, only I'm not sure where. I am always relieved when The Building that Takes Forever to Build is completed, but there is always another building, on another block, to inherit its title, sending construction debris onto the pathetic little roadway and into the innards of my Subaru, where it pinballs and pings and wakes my son from his hard-earned slumber.

For almost three years we drove our son to sleep. We are idiots, but it was not the realization that we were idiots that ended these drives. It was our crystal-pure desire to stop, at all costs, driving any more than we had to on Horizon Ridge Parkway.

4. In Which I Learn How They'll Fix It

Little did I know, as I drove grumbling to and fro, that Henderson's design engineers were hard at work trying to fix the sawtooth effect. The impending construction of the new freeway interchange at Lake Mead Parkway had created a sense of urgency about the surrounding surface streets. It was clear that, as I-215 east of Stephanie became almost impassible, traffic would find its way onto Horizon Ridge. The city set to solving the problem in two ways—first, by applying for RTC funds; and second, by working to form a Local Improvement District (L.I.D.) along a portion of Horizon Ridge. An L.I.D. is a mechanism, variations of which are used in many growing communities, that raises the funds necessary to complete infrastructure in advance of development. In a classic L.I.D., the city floats a bond to raise the initial funds and then collects regular assessments from landowners to pay back the bondholders. There are, however, many other ways to configure L.I.D.-type arrangements. In Henderson, L.I.D.s have been most commonly associated with large master-planned developments such as Green Valley Ranch and Seven Hills, where main roadways were completed well before the adjoining subdivisions. (In such areas, L.I.D. fees are generally passed on to homeowners, who may wind up paying more than $500 a year until the work is paid off.) By comparison, the Horizon Ridge L.I.D., on a street that is already more than half developed, is a smaller project, but in some ways more complex: Horizon Ridge does not have a master developer who designs the whole area and arranges its L.I.D.; what it has instead is a host of mostly small landowners, occupying 11 miles of roadway and building an eclectic, borderline chaotic mix of residential, office and retail properties. And in creating an L.I.D., dealing with the many, rather than the few, can't help but be a little untidy.

• • •

In 2004, using RTC funds (but no L.I.D.), Henderson fixed the sawtooth conditions on the four-mile stretch from Gibson to Horizon Ridge's eastern end point; this work created a full-width, four-lane roadway, but one that along undeveloped stretches had no curbs, gutters, sidewalks, or street lamps (the RTC does not fund such improvements; these will be installed as properties are developed). On the seven-mile stretch west of Gibson, the city opted for a combined approach, using newly awarded RTC funds to foot 70 percent of the bill for completing the roadway and bringing in the other 30 percent from owners of undeveloped land through the L.I.D. (Owners who had already developed their land did not need to join the L.I.D.) This approach would allow the city to hire a single contractor and finish the road in one pass, complete with curbs, gutters, sidewalks and street lamps. (Under pre-L.I.D. conditions, with each developer hiring its own contractor, it wasn't unusual to see, side by side on 20 yards of roadway, two separate crews with redundant workers, foremen, and equipment. This situation can still be glimpsed here and there along the road, where work on a handful of projects initiated before the L.I.D. continues.)

The city began working to create the Horizon Ridge L.I.D. in 2000. It held neighborhood meetings to let landowners know just what the L.I.D. entailed and to hear those landowners out on their misgivings. It worked on designs for the completed roadway, detailed right down to the last subterranean water and sewer lines. It conducted traffic and hydrology studies and negotiated with landowners for right-of-way. Later, there were public hearings to field lingering protests from the landowners. The whole delicate process of balancing public needs with private interest (not to mention the actual design challenges) took time—from the commuter's point of view, precious time—and as Lake Mead Parkway became a construction bottleneck at the new interchange, Horizon Ridge west of Gibson remained a sawtooth-riddled mess.

Nonetheless, the city was making steady progress. As design engineers worked to persuade holdouts to sign on, they were able to point out that the Horizon Ridge L.I.D. was a particularly good deal for the landowners: Under the L.I.D., the City of Henderson, using the RTC funds and some of its own, would front the cost for completing the road, and collect the landowners' 30 percent share of the cost in staggered fees (assessments) over the coming years. Since the RTC funds would cover the entire cost of the traffic lanes, landowners in the L.I.D. would, in essence, pay only for curbs, gutters, sidewalks, streetlights, water and sewer along their parcel. Not bad, considering landowners who developed before the L.I.D. had to pay for everything. On the other hand, an owner of undeveloped land could argue that under pre-L.I.D. conditions he wouldn't have had to pay a penny until he decided to build.

Ordinarily, under Nevada law, creation of an L.I.D. requires the agreement of 51 percent of the landowners who would be affected. There is, however, a provision stating that if a local authority is paying more than 50 percent of the L.I.D.'s cost, it has no responsibility to obtain agreement from the landowners. Theoretically, Henderson could have pushed the Horizon Ridge L.I.D. process forward without courting agreement from the landowners. This approach, though, struck Henderson leaders and planners as unnecessarily confrontational; a city whose growth has been fueled and, in many ways, funded, by private enterprise wanted to make sure that it entered a major project hand-in-hand, rather than hand-to-throat, with private landowners. In early 2004, city officials met their self-imposed goal of persuading a majority of the landowners to sign on. Construction began in November. By the end of this summer, Henderson hopes to have virtually eliminated sawtooth conditions on Horizon Ridge Parkway.

• • •

Nearly 1.8 million people currently live in Clark County. Since 1994, an average of 76,000 people have moved here each year and found themselves a place to live, a place to work, and a handful of shopping spots. From July 2003-July 2004, the number of newcomers jumped to 105,494—up from 63,197 the previous fiscal year. Each month in 2004, Southern Nevada authorities issued 1,500-2,000 residential building permits, covering hundreds of acres of formerly raw land. Meanwhile, all those newcomers bring their cars to town: In February 2005 alone, 6,285 out-of-state drivers licenses were turned in to Las Vegas Valley DMV offices. Mix all of these numbers together, and they turn into pavement, lots of it.

The question then arises: Can we, in laying all this asphalt, do better?

First, it's worthwhile to point out that we could be doing worse. In Mesa, Arizona, which also relies on private developers to build roads, the Power Road area suffered sawtooth conditions for 20 years before local authorities, using a mechanism called the Scalloped Street Assessment Law, put in improvements at public expense. Under the Scalloped Street Assessment Law, landowners who build alongside the road within the next 10 years will have to pay back their share for improvements. Anyone who builds after 10 years, though, won't have to pay at all. (This approach is potentially more expensive than an L.I.D., but it has the advantage of letting a municipality get the job done without having to court landowner agreement.)

In Henderson, Robert Herr points to the coming development of West Henderson as an example of an innovative way to prevent the sawtooth effect. "What we're trying to do there is create a refunding district," Herr says. "It's like an overgrown L.I.D. of sorts." In this "overgrown L.I.D.," a master developer would at the very start of the project build roads and infrastructure to suit the area's long-term needs, and then, as land is sold to secondary developers and they begin to put up buildings, they would pay into the refunding district, which would reimburse the master developer. In contrast, when Del Webb Corporation wanted to complete the leg of Eastern Avenue south of St. Rose that leads to Anthem, the company wound up paying to complete virtually the whole road, without reimbursements, even though much of it was not on Anthem property. Essentially, Del Webb was willing to pay a premium to get into a new area first, but a refunding district of the type planned for West Henderson might be a still more reliable—and relatively cost-effective—way to ensure early completion of roadways that will fulfill anticipated needs.

As helpful as a refunding district would be in West Henderson, such an approach is still made possible only by the presence of a master developer. Time and again in the last two decades, the Valley has seen that large communities planned by a single developer (even if parcels are later sold off to other builders) are able to complete their roads not just along with growth, but in advance of it. What remains unanswered is how streets beyond the borders of these cities-within-cities—streets of the ordinary sort, in which every 20 yards there's a different landowner, with plans all his own—can be completed and made safe for commuters. Can landowners, perhaps, be drawn into an ad-hoc conglomerate that from the very start functions the way a master developer does in the refunding district? Will public funds catch up with growth? Will growth slow down? Can we, in the end, afford to build our roads on schedules determined not by the ebb and flow of street-side development, but by the needs of the people who drive on them?

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