Photo By DENNIS MYERS The Galena Creek Bridge, because of its size and its very visible looming presence over Pleasant Valley, has gotten most of the publicity as the opening of the new leg of the freeway spur nears. But there are other impressive bridges like this along that leg—eight of them.

It was at 4:03 p.m., 42 years ago last week—on Aug. 6, 1970—that the new U.S. 395 freeway through Washoe Valley opened, after a troubled construction period during which an overpass collapsed and there was difficulty working with damp ground along Washoe Lake.

Previously, 395 had been farther west, along the foothills of the Sierra.

In 2012, the latest incarnation of the Carson/Reno route is a new leg of the U.S. 395 freeway through the Truckee Meadows. Over the years, it has been creeping, in sections, farther south. In 1973, a portion from the north valleys to Glendale Avenue opened, followed in 1980 by the leg from Glendale to South Virginia Street near Meadowood Mall.

There, only two ramps instead of the normal four were installed, in spite of the enormous traffic generated by Meadowood. There was only a southbound exit ramp and a northbound on-ramp, no southbound on-ramp and no northbound off-ramp. Eventually the construction of what later became the Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstore buildings blocked the paths where those ramps could have gone.

In 1983, the leg from the Meadowood area south opened.

Meanwhile, in Carson City the same process has been going on, with a portion from the north end of Eagle Valley to U.S. 50 opening in 2006 and a second leg from U.S. 50 (a.k.a. East William Drive) to Fairview Avenue opening in 2009.

But the piece in the middle, through Washoe Valley, was put in first.

Gas wasting route

Alongside that new 1970 straightaway freeway through Washoe Valley were the stone remains of a Comstock-era structure, the Ophir mill. In subsequent years, it became apparent that the increased vibrations from the new highway accelerated the building’s deterioration as wall after wall collapsed. And with 395 now no longer tucked into the foothills over by Bowers Mansion but out in the middle of the valley, wind became an obstacle for long-haul truckers and the big motor homes that had begun appearing on the scene.

It wasn’t the first time the Reno/Carson road was troubled either by construction problems like the overpass collapse or post-construction problems, and it would not be the last.

When the first Carson/Reno highway was built, route was a point of friction. In Jan. 1920 after the Nevada Highway Board decided on the east side of Washoe Lake (then an empty expanse but offering a linkup 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.

That highway was made of concrete and was done all in one project, not in portions.

Route also became a fiery political issue in the early 1980s as the portion south of Meadowood was being planned. It generated considerable anger, particularly because low-to-middle income residents of the Home Gardens neighborhood had recently been forced to leave their homes to make room for airport expansion. The rich people in southwest Reno were unwilling to do the same and brought all their influence to bear, preventing adoption of the most direct route. That’s why the freeway drive suddenly jerks to the east for several miles, then back west—and why it now takes longer and uses more fuel, which adds up when the number of trips is in the hundreds of thousands.

After that portion was completed and work on the Mt. Rose highway-to-Washoe City portion began, the state started putting up new “shield” signs designating 395 as I-580. For years, people have wondered why the name of a California freeway was used, especially given the fact that Renoites are so familiar with it. “I use 580 every time I visit my family in San Rafael,” one local complainant told us. “Why confuse things like this?”

The answer wasn’t easy to get. State highway officials didn’t seem to know, but federal interstate highway officials in D.C. did, though they didn’t want their names used. Here’s what they said:

First, 395 is a U.S. highway, not an interstate highway. And I-580 isn’t an interstate highway, either. It’s an interstate spur.

The numbering of interstate highways cannot be duplicated. “And I-95 is on the East Coast so 95 can’t be used for an interstate in the West,” according to our source. There is a U.S. 95 in the West, but no I-95.

But the numbers of interstate spurs can be duplicated. We didn’t get an explanation of why, but they can.

“Three-digit interstates [spurs] are numbered on the base of an existing interstate route, in this case I-80, with the addition of an initial digit. To secure an interstate number, Nevada proposed 580 so it would be a spur off of I-80. Spurs connecting on only one end with an Interstate are given an odd digit, while loops connecting on both ends are assigned an even digit.”

The I-580s have their counterparts in other areas of the nation, though they don’t normally overlap places that have such common ties in commerce and media as western Nevada and the Bay Area. Among spurs along Interstate 80, there are I-380s in Pennsylvania, Iowa and California. Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nebraska, and Wyoming all have I-180s.

The California I-580 runs from San Rafael to deep in the Central Valley.

Opening day

For weeks, the state has been sort of opening the new interstate spur.

There have been days when people could walk or bike the route or drive in one direction. There has even been a ribbon-cutting. But as of this writing, there is still no date set for the actual opening other than “mid-August.”

There were some small incidents in the construction of this leg of the spur, such as damage from the Washoe Drive fire in January to seeding of slopes and damage to logs placed on the slopes to combat erosion.

More serious was the cancellation, on May 18, 2006, of a $79.5-million contract with bridgebuilder Edward Kraemer & Sons Inc. of Wisconsin because of disagreements over whether the Pleasant Valley bridge, called the Galena Creek Bridge, could be safely constructed in its location given the powerful winds in the area that were dubbed “Washoe zephyrs” by Mark Twain. Kraemer had already completed some of the smaller bridges but the one hovering over Pleasant Valley was unfinished. It set back the project years.

“[We] continue to have technical disagreements over construction,” said Kraemer exec Michael Fischer in a prepared statement. “Both parties have agreed that the best path for [us] is to wrap up our work.”

Against such charges, the state conducted more than one probe to assure that the structure is safe.

As local officials and state highway officials celebrated the approaching opening of the new leg, one discordant note came from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, which editorialized that the entire project was a waste of money and that the money for it came from southern taxpayers: “Interstate 580 is a testament to political power, misplaced priorities and wasteful spending. The bridge-linked, mountainside route will cut just six minutes from the current, lower route between Reno and Carson City, on U.S. Highway 395 in the Pleasant Valley. Instead of widening U.S. 395 at less than one-fourth the cost, the state and Washoe County decided to create a more costly, scenic route from scratch. Had heavy traffic and population growth warranted such largess, it might have been defensible. But the new road is projected to carry just 25,000 vehicles per day. … Reno and Carson City—thanks to powerful northern lawmakers who directed resources to their own backyards—now have a new highway that won’t approach its capacity for decades.”

A reader named Timothy Hoover posted a response on the newspaper’s Facebook page: “[O]ur freeway between Reno and Carson City is VERY much needed. US 395 through Pleasant Valley is a four-lane road that has cross traffic. Simply widening the road and having cross traffic remain is NOT a viable option, and you know it!”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...