While it may still be decades in the making, the foundations of a plot that might bring an Interstate through Hawthorne are being laid.
The scheme involved extending Interstate Highway 11, a new section of interstate connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix, through northern Nevada to Reno before it continues on its way to Canada.
I-11 is part of the CANAMEX corridor, a stretch of highway between Canada and Mexico that Congress declared was crucial to national commerce in 1995. Building I-11 is one of the key steps in making sure there is an Interstate between Canada and Mexico, but there are some who think the project could, eventually, be used for something more.
The plan is still in the very early stages of development, said Sondra Rosenberg, project manager for the Nevada portion of I-11, and it’s entirely unclear where the highway will go, if it is ever extended north.
But, the Nevada and Arizona Departments of transportation recently completed a study that found the most viable way to extend the road to Reno is through Northern Nevada along U.S. Highway 95, which Rosenberg said has also been designated crucial to national commerce by Congress.
After it gets to Reno, the study found I-11 should either follow Highway 95 to Winnemucca, or U.S. 395 into California and eventually through Oregon and Washington into Canada.
“This is a very long term planning study,” Rosenberg said. “We are gathering all the information we have at this time and making some recommendations about what should be examined further.
“It doesn’t mean we have the resources for a more detailed study, it doesn’t mean anything is going to be built anytime soon.”
Nobody knows if the highway will even be constructed, and if it is how it will interact with existing roads and towns.
For instance, the study didn’t look at whether the highway should go through or around the towns of Hawthorne and Tonopah, Rosenberg said.
The extension of the highway through the desert is an extremely long term prospect, Rosenberg said. It would likely be about 50 years before the road is complete, if it ever is.
One of the key questions to be answered before a decision is taken to extend the intersection revolves around demand. Rosenberg said she doesn’t know if there is enough demand for an interstate in the area, but said as Nevada seeks to diversify its economy she expects traffic to increase.
“If you build it, they will come,” she said. “So some of it depends on what access there is to that corridor. I’ve been saying recently that it’s not an interstate that creates traffic demand, its access to that interstate.”
Rosenberg also said its possible Highway 95 will be improved and widened, but not brought up to the full standards of an interstate.
Possibilities and Perils
If I-11 is extended north it’s unclear how the construction of the interstate will impact Hawthorne.
Shelly Hartmann, executive director of the Mineral County Economic Development Authority, said if the interstate goes through Hawthorne, it could bring tourists and truckers, all of whom could bring a revitalizing infusion of cash into the community.
Some trucking companies avoid using Highway 95 because it is only two lanes and trucks can sometimes be stuck behind a slow driver for long periods of time, Hartmann said.
“A lot of trucking companies would change their route with the bigger [highway],” she said.
She also said that some potential tourists avoid the road because of a “phobia” of two-lane roads.One of the key areas of potential development for Mineral County is in shipping, Hartmann said.
Eighty percent of trucks leaving Nevada are empty, but trucking companies charge for each way of the trip, Hartmann said. Since shippers are paying for trucks to move through the state anyway, if an interstate were built though Hawthorne, it could open an opportunity for companies to move to the town and ship their goods on these empty trucks, she said.
But, if the interstate breaks from Highway 95 and moves around the back side of Walker Lake, the blow to Hawthorne’s economy could be nearly fatal.
Hartmann pointed to Highway 318 in central Nevada, which cut traffic through Lincoln County by 75 percent after it was constructed.
“If they’re going to bypass us it won’t be good, it would just mean that we need to do more to let people know where we’re at,” she said.
The route the interstate could take will require more study, Rosenberg said. Several factors would be considered, including the difficulty of building the road; the infrastructure that exists in the area to support travelers; and how locals feel about a four-lane highway passing through their town.
“Everything is up in there air,” Hartmann said. “Money being money, I don’t know that there’s enough money to build massive miles of highways to circumvent our town.”
Even though there’s little more than talk of extending I-11 into northwestern Nevada, a broad range of voices are offering their support for the extension.
“Some have called this project a ‘game-changer’ for our region, and I couldn’t agree more,” said Congressman Steven Horsford (D-NV) in an email. “Manufacturing, logistics, tourism, and distribution: all of these sectors would benefit tremendously from the construction of a much needed interstate highway.”
Horsford, who represents Mineral County and much of rural Nevada, said interstates are investments that typically return $6 for every dollar invested.
“As we work on this project, I am going to seek local input from all communities that can benefit from its construction, that includes Hawthorne,” he said. “In terms of the geography of the construction, I want to know what local stakeholders believe would be most beneficial for them. This is about creating jobs and spurring economic growth throughout all of Nevada.”
Sen. Dean Heller’s (R-NV) office is also following the project.
“Senator Heller is continuing to follow the various proposals,” said Chandler Smith, Heller’s communications director. “He believes that any decision is best made by those directly involved on the state and local level, and that Nevadans across the state should have ample opportunity to provide their input.”
The Sparks City Council even chimed in last month, unanimously adopting a resolution saying the city “strongly supports” efforts to build the highway, and urging Sparks elected officials to pressure the Nevada congressional delegation to help make the road a reality.