After nearly two decades in the making, the nearly $1 billion Project Neon in downtown Las Vegas nears completion while remaining on time and on budget.
“Project Neon is the state of Nevada’s largest and most expensive public works project undertaken during its 152-year history,” says Tony Illia, Public Information Officer for the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT). “Project Neon will revamp the stretch to better accommodate the growing needs of local commuters and tourists.”
This 3.7-mile section of Interstate 15, between Sahara Avenue and U.S. 95 is the busiest in Nevada, carrying 300,000 vehicles daily, about one tenth of the state’s population, Illia reports. The department anticipates traffic volume will double by 2035.
“This project will improve traffic on Interstate 15 and improve access to downtown,” said Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval, at the groundbreaking in 2016.
Every hour, about 25,000 drivers change lanes, resulting in an average of three crashes daily. Primary goals of the project include improving safety, decreasing weaving and reducing traffic delays.
“Several ‘ramp braids’ will reduce merge and weave traffic on Interstate 15,” Illia says. “Ramp braids are similar to frontage roads that dip underneath or over one another to move vehicles more efficiently after departing or entering the freeway.”
Traffic delays are expected to decrease by 28 percent, once the project is finished in 2019, which should yield a $110,000 savings in annual productivity. Additionally, Illia says, “It will improve air quality due to less idle time and vehicle exhaust.”
The project includes construction of a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, which will enable easier access to downtown by carpoolers and rapid transit, and a diamond interchange at Charleston Boulevard, for more efficient access to Symphony Park and the Medical and Arts districts, Illia says. No tolls will be collected on the HOV lane.
State revenue bonds funded the project, and federal monies will assist in retiring the bond debt. The City of Las Vegas contributed about $75 million in locally obligated federal highway funds.
Kiewit Infrastructure West of Las Vegas received the design-build contract. SNC-Lavalin’s Aktins business of Henderson, Nevada, serves as the lead designer. Lage Design of Henderson, Nevada, provided landscape and aesthetics design.
“The design-build process is enabling the project to finish nearly a year earlier than anticipated, for nearly $80 million in time savings for local taxpayers,” Illia says.
Angelo Spata, Director of Alternative Delivery for Atkins and Design Manager for Project Neon, says, “We designed around how we could construct it faster and with fewer impacts. With the shorter construction duration, we were able to provide value to the project and the public.”
Designed to Complement
Design and demolition began in November 2015. The project includes 29 new bridges, with 27 completed so far. Concrete from the demolitions have been screened and used as fill for embankments on the project. The bridges use concrete precast California-wide flange girders, Illia reports.
Aiming to complement the Vegas esthetic, Atkins designed an iconic gateway to the community, with sculptures, lighted art panels with a variety of color, art walls and landscaping.
NDOT involved the public in selecting a theme for the roadway – Meadows Redux, which harkens back to the origin of Las Vegas, with its grasslands, animals and foliage.
“It’s about the natural systems that brought everyone to Las Vegas,” says Geoffrey Schafler, Landscape and Aesthetics Design Lead with Lage Design.
Three underpasses will feature backlit metal panels, with grass cutouts. The evenly spaced panels adhere to the abutment walls. NDOT can change the color of the LED lighting, for instance, making them red, white and blue on the Fourth of July.
“The light also provides more light for pedestrian safety,” Schfler says.
The bridge rails boast the same grass pattern. And at the top of the bridge rail, there are sculptures of grasses. The mechanical stabilized earth retaining walls reflect the flora associated with the meadows. Metal applique birds fly, rabbits sit in the grass and flowers grace the retaining walls.
In a couple of locations, freestanding art walls depict images of a meadow with wildlife and grasses. Sculptures of grasses, which are 33 feet tall, will welcome drivers at the gateways. At another area, three basket sculptures of difference sizes and filled with grasses greet drivers. Decorative rocks, colorful plants and trees are found throughout the project.
Additionally, the City of Las Vegas held an art contest, and the team incorporated those pieces into the design at the junction of Interstate 15. One is called Found Font, with curving metal script, and the other Hot Dip, with tall vertical elements.
Construction with Traffic Management in Mind
Kiewit began construction in July 2016. Work was phased to enable traffic to flow. Local streets were completed first, then U.S. 95 and finally I-15.
“Traffic management is the key to the project; it’s the most important aspect,” Illia says. “We were charged with undertaking the largest public works project in state history through the center of downtown Las Vegas, while keeping traffic open and flowing. The design-build contractor was required to still maintain access to neighboring homes and businesses, school and hospitals, while making progress on a fast-track construction schedule. The traffic plan is as complex and involved as it gets; in fact, it’s arguably the project’s most impressive piece of engineering.”
The team installed 42 active traffic management signs to help direct drivers and provide real-time updates. Atkins’ geographic information system-based detour analysis tool provides real time information about closures and detour routes, potential conflicts and spots where traffic is backing up. It estimates traffic demand on detours.
Major bridge demolitions were completed during weekend closure marathons, Illia says.
“Most of the major picks for the bridges were done at night or during marathon weekend closures to minimize traffic impacts,” says Illia.
The centerpiece of the project will be an 81-foot-tall, 2,606-foot-long HOV flyover from southbound U.S. 95 to southbound I-15, which also accommodates carpool traffic from northbound I-15 to U.S. 95 northbound, Illia explains. The project additionally converts the two existing I-15 express lanes into a general purpose and HOV lane, thereby creating 22 consecutive miles of carpool lanes between I-15 and U.S. 95.
The road has concrete paving with a crumb rubber and asphalt concourse.
“Concrete pavement has greater longevity, costing 13 percent to 28 percent less in the long run than asphalt, according to federal studies,” Illia says. “It reduces rutting and potholes, thereby cutting maintenance expenses by up to 75 percent. The crumb rubber and asphalt concourse make for a smoother, safer driving surface that also lowers the decibel rating.”
More than 500 crafts workers have worked two shifts, six days weekly, using more than 160 pieces of heavy equipment. More than 1 million man hours had been worked by summer of 2018. The project has created 4,000 direct, indirect or induced jobs.
During the summer months, workers consumed 7,000 bottles of water, the equivalent of 924 gallons, enough to fill an average-sized swimming pool every two weeks, Illia reports.
The department anticipates completion by summer 2019, on time and within budget. Spata reports that Kiewit has beat all of the major milestones.
“The key to the project is the fact that the design-build team and NDOT designed a significant amount of improvements that will benefit the community,” Spata concludes.
Photos courtesy of Nevada Department of Transportation
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