Bypass idea causing deep concern in Tonopah, Beatty

In Tonopah and Beatty, the coming of I-11 is a life and death matter.

In each community, highway traffic is the economic lifeline. But in each community, a freeway bypass seems inevitable.

Erika Gerling, treasurer of Beatty’s Town Advisory Board, sums up the situation succinctly: ‘A bypass may bypass our future.”

In Tonopah, US 95 has many names. It’s the Veterans Memorial Highway. It’s Main Street for much of its run through the heart of town. It’s four lanes wide, sometimes divided, sometimes not. The southbound lanes are called Erie Street and both street names carry on when the divided highway ends.

Motels, restaurants and shops line the road and parking is permitted in some stretches.

Upgrading the road to interstate standards would cut the town in half, wipe out some businesses and limit access to those that survive. It’s just unworkable. But the alternative may be worse.

US 95 swings east of Mt. Butler and cuts a path between Brougher Mountain and Ararat Mountain. The valley is home to Tonopah.

Town Manager Joe Westerlund is concerned that Nevada Department of Transportation might find it easier to cut a new road around the mountains to the west, effectively bypassing Tonopah.

The economy of the town of 2,500 is closely tied to its location as the midpoint between Reno (237 miles north) and Las Vegas (211 miles south).  The town needs those travelers to stop for food, for fuel, maybe stay overnight and perhaps explore the town’s history, Westerlund says.

He’s a member of the town’s committee on I-11 but the committee hasn’t met in over a year. The last meeting was without masks, Westerlund recalls with a grin in his voice.

Communication with NDOT has gone cold. And that too is a concern.

Then there’s the matter of safety. NDOT told the town I-11 would triple traffic and that means triple the crashes, Westerlund says. Tonopah has a volunteer ambulance service, a clinic but its hospital closed. Anything more complex than a broken arm requires a two-hour trip to Hawthorne or across the state line to Bishop, California. Serious medical situations – like the ones incurred in a high-speed freeway wreck – require an emergency helicopter ride to Reno or Las Vegas. That just isn’t sustainable, Westerlund says.

His best-case scenario is that Nye County officials can help deliver a share of pandemic assistance money to sustain a hospital in Tonopah. And maybe somebody will notice that once-busy World War II-era airstrip east of town. Cargo could be flown in, separated and dispatched north and south to the urban centers via the new freeway. Are you listening, Amazon?

Whatever happens next, Tonopah is at an inflection point, Westerlund says.

He’s a native of Tonopah and loves the outdoor lifestyle but acknowledges there isn’t much to do if you don’t have a four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle.

If I-11 brings growth and jobs, the town can improve its school and attract amenities like a movie theater and some national retailers. That in turn could stop the drain of children going off to college and never coming back.

However, if I-11 kills businesses and jobs, the town won’t survive.   

A hundred miles south, Beatty is facing a similar fate. It’s less than half the size of Tonopah and clings fiercely to its title as the ‘Gateway to Death Valley.’

Starting in 2018, the town has written letters to NDOT pleading its case to secure its brand and its economic viability.

Given the geography, the town recognizes the inevitability of a bypass. Gerling says town leaders have explored all the options and only a route west of town, past the airport, makes sense. That kind of a bypass would bring traffic closer to Death Valley and an exit to the tourist area would cut Beatty out of the equation.

That can’t happen, the town has told NDOT.

What might work is less clear. Perhaps a split highway, with lanes for trucks and a business route that brings cars closer to Beatty, would help. Certainly electronic signage would be needed to market Beatty’s motels, restaurants, fuel stops and shops.

Is that enough?

NDOT has gathered a group of studies on the impacts of bypass routes —

And the outlook isn’t bright for traffic-dependent towns as small as Beatty and Tonopah.

Both communities acknowledge the devil is in the details and those details won’t reveal themselves until the next stage study of potential routes.

Both towns say they’re determined to be heard. But there’s a wide gap between being heard and winning the day.

Still, Gerling says the only hope is to ask for what you want, then keep asking. It’s a matter of life and death for the towns.