BOULDER CITY, Nev. — There are three stoplights in Boulder City, and all of them preside over U.S. Route 93, the primary conduit for traffic moving between Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Boulder City, about 25 miles southeast of Las Vegas, is home to 15,500 residents, a handful of locally owned restaurants, a city hall, a railroad museum and a multitude of antique stores offering Native American jewelry, life-size Elvis statues and rare coins.
The city was founded as a place to house the construction workers who built the Hoover Dam. (The structure’s original name, Boulder Dam, lives on through T-shirts and postcards in Boulder City.) One of the only cities in Nevada where gambling is prohibited, Boulder City seems an incongruous neighbor to Las Vegas.
A truck drives along U.S. 93 through Boulder City during peak weekend traffic. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
It offers a variety of outdoor recreational activities, including hiking, mountain biking, zip lining and waterskiing.
“We’re very proud of being a small town, a safe community,” said Boulder City Public Works Director Scott Hansen, a 20-year resident of the city.
Soon, the Boulder City area will be home to a new interstate highway, according to Federal Highway Administration.
Interstate 11, being built now by the Nevada Department of Transportation in partnership with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, is a 15-mile stretch that will wrap around the southern perimeter of Boulder City. The route forms a half-loop that begins at I-515 and reconnects with U.S. 93 right before the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge that spans the Hoover Dam.
A contracting truck drives under a new wildlife overpass over the new Interstate 11. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
I-11 will dodge Boulder City entirely, which is good news for truckers. One big reason: It’s an alternate route for tractor-trailers, laden with everything from engine parts to jewelry, to snake through the flat expanse of desert and tumbleweed-dotted hills until they cross the state line into Arizona. Then they can pick up U.S. 93 again for more than 200 miles until they reach Phoenix.
Phoenix and Las Vegas are the two biggest cities in the country that are not linked by an interstate.
Traffic going to and from the Hoover Dam — which NDOT said includes more than 2,000 trucks a day — clogs U.S. 93 and slows the movement of freight. Drivers encounter the three stoplights within a 3-mile stretch and navigate one particularly sharp turn as they move through the small city. The next closest stoplights on U.S. 93 are 270 miles north in Ely, Nev., and 80 miles south in Kingman, Ariz., said Ryan Wheeler, senior project manager for NDOT.
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The new interstate’s 15-mile stretch is expected to save 30 minutes of travel time, according to NDOT spokesman Tony Illia. Currently it can take up to an hour to move through Boulder City.
Brandon Hardy, a driver with XPO Logistics who works locally in Las Vegas during the week and whose longest runs take him no farther than Boulder City, said he is looking forward to the time savings I-11 will bring.
“I think it’s great,” Hardy said. “It’ll be smooth sailing.”
On weekends, he occasionally makes trips to Utah, but Transport Topics caught up with him on April 28 when he was competing in the Nevada Truck Driving Championship. Hardy won the 5-axle category.
David Brower, vice president of risk management at Las Vegas-based trucking company Truline Corp., said the new interstate will simultaneously increase safety and facilitate mobility.
“From a traffic perspective, from an efficiency perspective, it makes all the sense in the world,” Brower said.
Interstate 11 runs through a geological gamut of desert and mountains. About 2.5 miles of the route is already open, connecting I-515 and U.S. 93. Two new bridges — one for pedestrians and one for the Nevada Southern Railway excursion — pass over it. Sculptures of the “31ers” who moved to the area in 1931 to build the dam and the turbines that generated power line the retaining walls as an homage to the infrastructure project that led to Boulder City’s foundation. The remaining 12.5 miles that stretch away from Boulder City and form a half-loop are almost done. Illia said the entire interstate is set to open by early August, a couple of months ahead of schedule.
A metal art deco sculpture along Interstate 11 depicts the "31ers" who moved to the area in 1931 to build Hoover Dam. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
Most of the new interstate is paved but unmarked. It will be two lanes in each direction, and features a wildlife crossing for bighorn sheep (Nevada’s state animal) and wild burros. A rest area that overlooks Lake Mead has been constructed on one side of the road.
“It’ll be so much more efficient for people that aren’t really going to Boulder City and a true efficient way around,” said Tim Ruguleiski, resident engineer with NDOT’s construction division. “It’s going to change the air quality. It’s just going to make a better experience for people.”
Construction has its challenges too. Ruguleiski said the area was a “hotbed of utilities” that the crew had to navigate. For example, NDOT’s team found a gas line in conflict with a bridge footing. They also were confronted with a plethora of naturally occurring asbestos, a toxic mineral released from the rocks or soil like dust during construction. Ruguleiski said the asbestos required constant monitoring and treatment with water. The wind, which picks up considerably in the mountains, frequently threatens to blow more asbestos into the area. The dust churned up at a nearby off-road track and blown onto the site posed an additional challenge, Ruguleiski said.
A parking lot and overlook with a view of Lake Mead are under construction along Interstate 11. (Photo by Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
Jared Wagstaff, manager of the Las Vegas Paving Corp., the contractor handling the 12.5-mile stretch, explained that controlling asbestos requires the constant application of water. He and his team built three ponds to store water and devised a remote-control system to distribute the water as needed. At peak, they used 1.5 million gallons of water daily to keep the asbestos at bay. Almost 223 million gallons of water have been used since the start of the project.
In order to build on navigable terrain, Wagstaff’s team had to blast shelves in mountains. The crew used 18 rock trucks to haul 100 tons of debris at a time. In March of last year, a rock slide required 97 supporting bolts that protrude from the mountain like cannons on an ironclad ship.
A stipulation for the project was that the route blend in with the surrounding environment. Wagstaff explained that the team transplanted native flora to adorn the areas flanking the route.
“As constructors, what we want to do is build straight, clean lines. That’s how we’ve been trained to do it,” said Wagstaff, who has been working on this project for five years. “We really had to retrain our personnel to make it look rough and undulating. We’ve literally moved mountains.”
While I-11 is expected to smooth traffic through Boulder City, the impact on business is uncertain.
Jill Lagan, CEO of the Boulder City Chamber of Commerce, has mixed feelings. The new route will allow locals to drive more readily through town but, she fears, will also dispel the very traffic the business community worked hard to attract.
“When you have something that could potentially bypass the traffic to your community, you’re always looking at how you could mitigate any negative impacts,” Lagan said.
An impact study of the highway ordered by the city’s Economic Vitality Commission revealed I-11 would yield a 34% drop in traffic.
Traffic in Boulder City usually is worst on the weekends, when people who have visited Las Vegas use U.S. 93 to return to Arizona. Trying to get through town from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a Friday or Sunday is a “joke,” said Lagan, who acknowledges the new route ultimately will be a massive relief for people who purposefully visit the area rather than just pass through it.
“If they see something they like, they’ll have more ability to stop. Before, traffic was so bad that they just wanted to get the heck out,” Lagan said. “[It’ll be good] if you’re a resident and you’re trying to get through town, or if you’re a local to southern Nevada and you want to come to Boulder City on a Sunday and have a dish of ice cream.”
Not all Boulder City business owners are worried.
Take Jill Quatrale. She owns and operates Chilly Jilly’z, a restaurant on U.S. 93 that sells homemade sandwiches and smoothies. Patrons dining in the restaurant’s patio area, which hosts live jazz performances on Sundays, have a clear view of the truck-addled traffic crawling past the café.
Jill Quatrale serves customer Sheryl Martens at Chilly Jilly'z on U.S. 93. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
“I feel like our business will get better, because when there’s no obstruction we can have more people that want to come from the Vegas area,” Quatrale said. “A lot of people like to drive and to get out of the city. They take their motorcycles or their weekend cars.”
Quatrale prides herself on her loyal customers, many of whom favor the patio seating and the Dole Whip, a form of pineapple-flavored soft serve that Quatrale said has developed a “cult following.” She calls many of her customers by name as they filter in and out of her restaurant.
“People could come here freely once the I-11 opens. People don’t want to come over to this part of town on Friday, Saturday, Sunday,” Quatrale said.
The Long Run
Although some of her patrons are truckers, Quatrale said that, on the whole, motor carriers will probably use I-11 instead of U.S. 93 every time they pass through the area.
Welcome to Boulder City. Sign greets drivers off U.S. 93. (Eleanor Lamb/Transport Topics)
“Hopefully, the goal is to send the people that don’t stop anyway around and to allow more flow for the people that do want to just come this way.”
The long-term vision for I-11 extends farther than Boulder City.
Illia said I-11 is “the first baby step” of a larger construction project that will link Las Vegas to Phoenix and, ultimately, Canada to Mexico.
The governments of Nevada and Arizona are in the midst of feasibility and environmental studies to continue I-11 north through Reno and south through Tucson.
“Connecting Phoenix and Las Vegas is going to have a tremendous impact on freight and commerce. You’re going to drive through in 15 minutes which would have taken, on average, substantially more time than that,” Wagstaff said. “It’s very unique. Building a project through raw desert, through the mountains, just does not get built.”