01/23/2004 12:00AM

Arriving by car is getting easier

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It wasn't too long ago that the easiest way to travel from Southern California to Las Vegas was to just jump on an airplane for a one-hour flight. It didn't cost much and check-in and check-out at the airport was no big deal.

It sure beat a four-hour drive across the desert, which can be longer if you get caught in bad traffic in either direction.

Then came 9/11 and now air travel is a big deal. For example, if you arrive at the airport one hour before your flight, you stand a good chance of missing the plane. Security issues have added extra time at each airport, coming and going.

Now driving to Las Vegas looks like a good option again. In fact, since 9/11 the highway traffic into the city has gone up nearly 15 percent. But despite the increased number of cars, the drive time to get back and forth to Southern California has remained constant and in some instances has gone down.

Fortunately for Las Vegas tourism, highway improvements have been ongoing.

"We've spent the last 10 years solving yesterday's problems today," said Tom Skancke, a local lobbyist told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Now we're going to spend the next 10 years solving tomorrow's problems today."

Skancke said that a third southbound lane between the California towns of Barstow and Victorville, which cost $80 million, was opened for traffic in December. This was eight months ahead of schedule. A third northbound lane between the same two cities is slated to begin construction this fall.

A major project, the $1.4 billion High Desert Corridor, which will eventually connect Victorville and Palmdale, is progressing well, too. Another $535 million is earmarked for ongoing highway projects between Primm in Nevada and Victorville.

More than 15 million visitors each year drive to Las Vegas from Southern California and that number should keep rising.

Nevada is doing its part with numerous Las Vegas highway projects that short-term are driving drivers crazy, but long-term will ease a lot of local congestion.

In 2004, more than $626 million is budgeted to be spent on highway projects in Clark County that includes Las Vegas. Here's a tip: Much of the construction on I-15 and U.S. 95 will occur at night. Thus if you drive here during off-peak night-time hours, don't be shocked if you run into major tie-ups due to the construction. My best advice is to check ahead of time with AAA or another motorist club.

Las Vegas has moved into the top 20 cities nationwide for worst urban traffic. That goes hand-in-hand with the explosive growth of the past two decades. Still, things could be worse. We could be living in Los Angeles, once again, ranked number one in the same report for worst urban traffic.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Radio Show.