California Governor Gavin Newsom and Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak announced at a joint press conference Sunday that Interstate 15 will be temporarily widened to include a third lane during peak travel times, with long term plans for a permanent third lane, due to increased traffic congestion problems at the California-Nevada border.
While traffic between California and Nevada along I-15 has been congested for decades, most notably during weekends with high Los Angeles-Las Vegas traffic, the car amount had been manageable until recent years. In 2018, a California Department of Food and Agriculture Border Protection station, which looks for illegal state or federal plant material in passing cars and trucks, moved from Yermo, about 100 miles away from the border, to only a few miles away from the border at Primm.
In addition to the number of lanes going from three in Nevada to two in California, the addition of the border station at the lane bottleneck caused lines of traffic never before seen. During Thanksgiving, the backup stretched for 20 miles along the Interstate, with some Sundays even worse due to high numbers of tourists returning to the Los Angeles area from Las Vegas.
The Thanksgiving backup spurred the two Governors to come together for a solution, resulting in a new plan and the press conference on Sunday. According to the new plan, a temporary third lane will be added to I-15 during peak congestion hours. Specifically, a shoulder of the highway near the border will be repaved and striped to allow for the extra traffic, with the whole project to be completed by the summer of 2022. Both Governors added that the long-term goal would be a permanent third lane in California from the border to the Mountain Pass station.
“I got a call from Governor Sisolak a few weeks ago who told me ‘We can’t take it anymore. California needs to step up,'” said Governor Newsom at the press conference at the Mountain Pass Border Protection station in Nipton on Sunday. We need a better partnership to address the frustration, the environmental degradation, the economic burdens, supply chain issues. We need to address a long standing issue that has not been addressed for years and years. When asked on our side of the border, ‘What is Caltrans going to do?’ the answer was, ‘We have nothing prepared.’ That all changed when the governor made the call a few weeks ago.”
“This 5-mile stretch of highway is a critical piece of infrastructure for not only our two states but for the whole country. However, the hours of traffic deters 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.”
“The longer-term strategy of making a third lane permanent or providing more relief — we have to work with our partners, including California Highway Patrol, that is assembled here, and work with other state partners. It will be done by this summer. You’re holding me to account– it’s on me to get it done by this summer.”
Governor Sisolak also added, “Annually, more than 11 million Las Vegas visitors drive in and out of town on I-15 and this is a major step forward while we continue to collaborate and work toward more permanent solutions.”
Thank you, @GavinNewsom and the whole @CAgovernor team, for your partnership and willingness to collaborate on the I-15 congestion. This is a critical issue for both our states & for all our travelers. I look forward to seeing these improvements and continuing the work together. pic.twitter.com/8oxOpuLx8r
— Governor Sisolak (@GovSisolak) December 5, 2021
The widening of I-15 in California
Reaction to the new I-15 plan was met mostly positively, with both states tourist boards in particular being in favor of the plan.
“We applaud and appreciate the commitment and collaboration by Governor Newsom and Governor Sisolak to address the frequent and significant congestion on I-15.,” said the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in a statement on Monday. “This initiative is an important first step that will begin to improve the experience of the 10 million visitors to Las Vegas who use this corridor. We know this will be exciting news celebrated by all who drive I-15 during peak travel times.”
However, some critics noted that the I-15 expansion ignores several bigger issues.
“The widening is good, especially if it helps supply-chain issues and being stuck for hours in a traffic jam,” explained LA-based transportation planner William Healey to the Globe on Monday. “But the main reason for the backup on the 15 is that agricultural checkpoint. It’s used to protect California crops and the $50 billion agriculture industry in the state. You don’t want a pet or invasive plant to hurt any of that.”
“But that needs to be moved or eliminated. There’s no current solution that sees that being removed and it should at least be on the table for discussion, because that’s the main reason. You can widen it all you want, but checkpoints like that always create a bottleneck. California should do study on if it is really needed still and how much of a threat outside plants can really bring. At least justify it with current statistics and info. But the state isn’t even doing that. A lot of Californians wonder why a station is even needed. Well, if it’s needed, show them why. If not, then maybe consider removing it, or at least moving it back down the 15 to where fewer cars are.”
The cost of the project is estimated at $12 million and will be funded by federal Build Back Better plan funding.