Trafficking in the wild

A nature area in Storey County is threatened—by Washoe County

Pressured by growing urbanization, Storey County has tried to keep its northwest section fairly wild. A Washoe County highway may bring civilization closer.

Pressured by growing urbanization, Storey County has tried to keep its northwest section fairly wild. A Washoe County highway may bring civilization closer.

Photo By David Robert

Opposition to the proposed Tahoe-Pyramid Link highway is becoming an article of faith among Storey County residents.

“Now is the time for all good Storey residents to come to the aid of their county,” read the lead sentence on a news article about the road project in the Virginia City Register last month.

The highway, first proposed in 1984, would provide a freeway (though planning officials avoid the term freeway) around the east side of the Truckee Meadows. The sticking point is that the simplest and most practical route would be near or in the wealthy Hidden Valley community, which is packed with people who have political juice.

In 1996 and ‘97, Hidden Valley residents organized against consideration of any nearby routes, making county commissioners exceedingly uncomfortable. Even more ominous for the county, the link started becoming the butt of jokes. “Why not put that Pyramid-Tahoe link road right between the Reno airport runways?” community activist and airport board critic Sam Dehne cracked.

Finally, the Hidden Valley contingent succeeded in getting the link put on hold.

The two- or four-lane project eventually proved so controversial that officials resorted to a time-tested public-relations strategy—changing its name. They (though few others) now call it the “southeast corridor” or “southeast connection” or the “industrial corridor” instead of the Tahoe-Pyramid Link.

Earlier this year, Washoe officials brought the project back to life, trumpeting a plan to move the route farther east into a de-facto nature preserve in Storey County as their solution. Storey residents call it a solution to Washoe County commissioners’ political problems but not to any traffic or engineering problems.

To them, the new route is akin to Sparks’ traditional solution to the homeless problem—Sparks police driving homeless people to Reno and dropping them off. They point out that the highway can be placed on the east side of Hidden Valley (the “foothill” route) in Washoe County with little disruption, causing the removal of only eight to 20 homes (the same number as the nature area route) and a park.

The foothill route has an estimated price tag of $150 million to $252 million, the second cheapest of five routes studied.

Last month, a Regional Transportation Commission citizens’ advisory board voted, barely, to recommend the Storey County route. By a 13-12 vote, the members recommended an 11.1-mile route called the “Sparks Industrial Corridor,” a name that seems designed to conceal the fact that it plows through a nature area (a strategy that appears to have worked, since some journalists have begun using the official term).

The cost for the nature area route would be $260 million to $317 million, the second-most expensive of the five routes.

The TRW Corporation owns about 6,600 acres in the area and is in negotiations with the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association for a transfer of title that would keep the area wild.

Storey County has carefully steered development within its borders away from the northwest part of the county. A pet food factory, for instance, was located in the northeast near Patrick in 1997. In that way, the county has kept the northwest relatively pristine.

Storey officials have been fighting this “industrial” route for the better part of a decade. The idea first surfaced as an alternative route in the 1990s and met with a sharp reaction on the Comstock where, on Sept. 2, 1997, county Commissioner Chuck Haynes denounced the nature area route.

“Storey County has traditionally been a dumping ground for everyone,” he said. “Washoe gives us their garbage; now they want to cut a highway through the county to solve their traffic problems. … It would, in effect, open up a portion of the county which we’ve worked hard to keep clean.”

Haynes asked Washoe residents, “If you don’t want it, why should we?”

Making Storey manage Washoe’s growth is no more popular to Comstockers today, particularly when a cheaper Washoe route is easily available, according to Storey County Commissioner Bob Kershaw.

“We thought it was a dead issue, but as it turns out it never went away,” Kershaw said. “… I think, you know, we have a lot of things on our side. For one thing, they [Washoe] can’t use any of their funding outside their county. They would have to go to the Legislature … and I would hope the state would not want to push this thing. It would set a precedent.”

He says that if the issue does go that far, he believes Storey County’s lawmakers—Mark Amodei, Tom Grady and Maurice Washington—would protect the county. Grady was reelected to the Nevada Assembly last week, and Amodei and Washington are returning senators.

Kershaw acknowledges that Washington represents both Sparks and Storey County but says since the highway isn’t particularly popular in Sparks, either, that should not create divided loyalties.

Kershaw also says making the road suddenly veer east out of alignment with the rest of the highway would, according to Washoe county studies, reduce usage of the leg from 50,000 to 18,000 cars a day.

Such a diversion occurred in the early 1980s on U.S. 395, whose route was changed between Huffaker and Holcomb to suddenly veer to the east to miss some of the affluent neighborhoods in the southwest. It then swung back sharply west just north of the Mount Rose Highway.