Art part of state mandate to beautify highways

Have you been wondering about the origins of those handsome “weathered steel” images of the 31ers alongside the Interstate 11 retaining wall out by the Railroad Pass Casino? Or the 3-D dam workers, complete with dog and car, that were just unveiled at roadside along the bypass? I sure have, and some helpful people at the Nevada Department of Transportation and the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada kindly gave me details to at least partially dispel my ignorance.

As you probably know, the first 2.5 miles of the project was done by NDOT last year, and we were pleasantly surprised to see the artwork just across the highway from the casino. Having driven the highways in most states over the 60 or so years since they were constructed, I did not recall much “beautification” until I moved to the Las Vegas metropolitan area where I have been much bemused by the bighorn sheep, pack mules, cacti and other lifelike adornments along newer area highways.

NDOT’s Public Information Officer Tony Illia supplied the background. Several years ago, the Nevada Legislature mandated that with every new highway project in the state a certain percentage (about 3 percent) of the funding must be spent on highway beautification projects that incorporate local features. It came to me as a source of Nevada pride to learn that this is our state’s initiative, not federally mandated.

The new retaining wall necessary for the full-diamond lane construction through Railroad Pass is 1,200 feet long and 28 feet high. Illia said that the need for this wall created an irresistible canvass for their aesthetics requirement. They engaged HDR Architectural Engineering to render Cor-Ten steel into the images, which pay homage to the 31ers who built the dam. They were the obvious choice for a local tie in, and the three-football-field-long display will be seen by millions of travelers and tourists that pass it by.

The wall is finished with a protecting coat that will enable them to easily wash away any tagging by creative miscreants.

The longer, 12.5-mile bypass section of the I-11 that just opened last month, was built under the aegis of RTC, with Jacobs Engineering overseeing the project and Las Vegas Paving doing the pouring. Both are Las Vegas locals.

If you have tried out the route, you were doubtless startled by the six iron men and their rustic car, trailed by faithful dog, frozen in time, hugging the south shoulder of the highway. I have never seen anything like it. Similar historic 31er images trudge ever nearer the dam site, but now in three dimensions.

These were provided by Jacobs Engineering. Their construction manager, Luis Palor, explains that they were produced by another local, Latino-owned firm, General Design and Construction with the help of a company called Stantec. These are the same folks that created the wondrous desert flora and fauna rendered in steel along Interstate 15 above the 215 Beltway, and they seem to have outdone themselves with this engaging, open-air diorama.

Dave Nelson retired to Boulder City in 2003 after a career with the FICO score company. He is vice president and newsletter editor for the local Sons of Norway.