Highway department turns 100

Roads, routes, politics, probes

Interstate 80 was being constructed in Sparks in 1966.

Interstate 80 was being constructed in Sparks in 1966.

During the 1917 Nevada Legislature, two newspaper reporters arrived in Carson City on Feb. 5 with a message for Nevada Gov. Emmet Boyle from California Governor Hiram Johnson.

Boyle received it while observing a joint session of the Nevada Assembly and Senate and immediately informed the legislators that the message called for construction of an all-weather California/Nevada highway and asked for Nevada’s assistance in lobbying the feds for funding.

We don’t really know whether this incident had a role in Nevada creating a highway department, but it’s true that just 46 days later, the Nevada Department of Highways was established. So what is now known by the more bureaucratic term of Nevada Department of Transportation is marking its centennial.

“We’ve been helping keep Nevada safe and connected for 100 years,” NDOT publicist Sean Sever said in a prepared statement. “Nevada has a rich transportation history, from the dirt paths of a century ago to today’s interstates carrying as many as 300,000 vehicles every day. What we do is about connecting Nevadans, and we want to hear from fellow residents their memories of Nevada’s transportation history, particularly from the first half of the twentieth century.”

There were cars and highways in Nevada before the department existed. For that matter, there were highways in the state before there were cars. But formation of the Highway Department gave a focus to roadbuilding, though in more recent decades things have become confused again. This newspaper once made an inquiry to local and state agencies trying to find out which was responsible for a transportation issue. That was in 2004. We are still waiting for a final determination.

Like highway departments everywhere, Nevada’s has had its ups and downs. Some of the issues it deals with never go away. In the 1930s, the department was working on highway beautification—trees that lined the roads—and removing billboards whenever they appeared.

The department could act quickly when called upon—and when given the resources—but that was not always the norm. In 1931 paving of the Boulder Highway between Boulder City and Las Vegas, in preparation for construction of Boulder Dam, got underway. But in 1960 California had the new interstate highway to the Squaw Valley Olympics finished when the games began, and Nevada did not.

Incrementalism was always a part of the work, necessitated by a Nevada Legislature that was often behind the curve. In 1918, the department received word that the federal government had approved $54,230 for construction of a concrete or asphalt road from Reno to Huffakers, to link up with the already approved highway from Huffakers to Washoe Valley. The money, however, would not be available until the world war was over. In August 1925, a highway between Incline Village and Glenbook was completed on the east side of Lake Tahoe, closing the last gap in a road around the lake.

Political disputes were common. At least two investigations of the department have occurred, in 1939 and 1966. That is a chronic problem in state highway departments.

One of the disputes, in 1966, was both political and investigative. It involved the lieutenant governor taking advantage of the absence of the governor from the state to call a grand jury into session to investigate the department. It was no coincidence that the lieutenant governor, Paul Laxalt, was running against the governor, Grant Sawyer.

Political pressures were, and are, common. In the early days, national and local groups of businesspeople kept beating the drums for more and faster construction of highways to facilitate commerce. There are battles over routes and priorities.

A couple of decades ago, rural leaders wanted the highway between Fernley and Fallon widened and started telling tales of traffic accidents caused by people passing on the two-lane road. As the “highway of death” notion grew, department officials felt the pressure but said the accident rate was not notably higher and there was no reason to boost it on the priority list. It moved up on the list, anyway.

When the first Carson/Reno highway was built, route was at issue. In Jan. 1920 the Nevada Highway Board decided to put it on the east side of Washoe Lake, where it could also hook up with the Jumbo Grade to Virginia City. Gov. Emmet Boyle fired the chair of the three-person board and replaced him to change the margin from a two-to-one vote for the east side into a two-to-one vote for the west side.

Gov. Richard Bryan, who spent a lot of time traveling by car between Carson City and the Reno airport, was very unhappy with the condition of the roads, and they got taken care of before their time.

Dwight Eisenhower as a young military officer traveled in a military convoy through Nevada and filed a report on “230 road accidents, that is, instances of road failure and vehicles sticking in quicksand or mud, running off the road or embankments, overturning, or other mishaps due entirely to the unfavorable and at times appalling traffic conditions that were encountered.” As president, after seeing the German autobahn highway system, he signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, creating the interstate highway system.

In Reno as in other communities, it caused sharp divisions over where the interstates should go and resulted in ugly, soulless structures. It also shifted power over local issues to D.C. Nevada, which until 1973 had no highway speed limit, fought a long battle against the 55-mile-an-hour limit imposed by a federal agency after the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

Highways also became tourist bait, as with Nevada’s “loneliest road” (U.S. 50) and “extraterrestrial highway” (State Route 375).

The department, now NDOT, plugs away. In western Nevada, currently, it is overseeing the latest increment of the freeway through Carson City, from Fairview Drive to South Carson Street; changes along State Route 28 on the east side of Lake Tahoe; and the politically sensitive USA Parkway through Storey County, which accommodates Tesla and the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center.