Planes, trains and automobiles, airports, roadways, power and water – we sometimes take them for granted. But every day, more and more Nevada residents put demands on this critical infrastructure. Behind the scenes, organizations are working diligently and creatively to hold Nevada’s infrastructure together, and keep pace with growth.
Water, Water – Where?
For the water authorities, both north and south, certain challenges remain the same: where to find water in a desert. The differences in recent years have been the challenges of finding water in a desert while so many new people are pouring into that desert every day.
So far, the water authorities have kept up with the frenetic pace of growth in Nevada. For Truckee Meadows Water Authority (TMWA), everything revolves around planning cycles. “We’re constantly planning,” said Lori Williams, general manager. “Resource planning leads to facilities planning, which leads to resource planning. It’s a constant cycle, updated with information like new demands placed on the system in recent years, what we expect in the future, how the regional plan has changed or if zoning has changed, and then we go back to look at those factors.”
Besides regional planning for water, resources and facilities, TMWA also determines the storage facilities and locations throughout its region, so its staff depends on a steady stream of incoming data on which areas are building up most quickly and where the next demands on water are going to be.
TMWA also provides services for new subdivisions once they’re approved. Three years ago, it was issuing as much as 1500 to 1800 acre-feet of water a year in new project water services, a demand which is cooling a bit.
“Currently we’re seeing a general slowdown in large subdivisions being built,” said Williams. There are more applications for commercial projects, including a number of four- or five-unit neighborhood retail centers.
At the other end of the state, Pat Mulroy, general manager of Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), is still seeing healthy growth in her region, especially given the recent land releases by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). “We have some significant infrastructure projects,” Mulroy said. “Three billion dollars worth of facilities need to be built to bring water from eastern central Nevada in White Pine and Lincoln Counties down the I-5 corridor.”
SNWA has a good track record for getting facilities built on time and on budget. The agency’s issues, Mulroy said, are more with getting permits and environmental clearances to develop water in the state of Nevada. “Our greatest challenge is on the resource end, which isn’t something we could necessarily be doing better – it’s a time consuming, political process,” she noted.
Currently, SNWA is awaiting hearings with the state engineer on a project to bring water from the Snake Valley basin on the Nevada/Utah line. The agency is confident it can develop the water program without damaging the environment or affecting area ranches, but residents in White Pine County have concerns about the water usage, and the approval process will take time. Meanwhile, SNWA has been successful in negotiating a Colorado River allocation plan.
Mulroy said she expects to see continued growth in Southern Nevada. The housing market is going through an adjustment now that the investor-fueled buying frenzy has cooled and a lot of those homes are flooding the market. “Until those are sold and the market settles, I think we’re going to see a slowdown in new construction,” said Mulroy. “I’ve been talking with home builders and they’re ratcheting back from past levels. However, once we’re past the market adjustment, we’re going to continue to see growth, although it might be a different growth, with more condominiums and high-rises and smaller lots being developed. The commercial sector is still healthy. If you go to the Strip and count the cranes, there are still so many of them.”
Sierra Pacific Resources, the holding company for Sierra Pacific Power Company and Nevada Power, is currently the fastest-growing utilities company in the country. While significant challenges arise in meeting the demands of growth in both the north and the south, Sierra Pacific Resource is accommodating those demands.
“In 2006, we had near-record levels of new hook-ups, with approximately 48,000 new electric customers in Southern Nevada and 10,000 in Northern Nevada,” said Jeff Ceccarelli, senior vice president, service delivery and operations. “In Northern Nevada, where we also have natural gas distribution, we added about 5,000 new gas customers. That’s a 5 percent compound growth rate for Southern Nevada and 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent in Northern Nevada – a very robust gain.”
What does that mean in terms of infrastructure? In the southern end of the state, Nevada Power put in over 750 miles of primary cable. Approximately $10 million dollars worth of stock items must pass through its warehouses every month to meet native growth load (or, basically, the growth of new customers.) Over the last eight years, some 52 new substations have been added in Southern Nevada. Currently, the biggest project on the power company’s drawing board is the coal-fired power plant under construction near Ely, which is just one of the infrastructure projects estimated to cost more than $1 billion in the next five years.
The Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RTIA) receives no tax monies – every bit of its operating dollars are generated by the airport itself. This explains why the first order of business as the airport grows is to rebuild the concourses, making concessions available for travelers after they’ve passed through security. The airport needs to generate revenue.
Still, post 9/11, Northern Nevada’s airport is doing well. “We’re feeling the effects of growth positively,” said Krys T. Bart, executive director, Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. “Take a look at the infrastructure we’ve put in place: the runways and taxiways and the air field. We’ve planned for the future. We won’t need any more infrastructure for a long time.”
Cargo transport has grown to three times the national average year after year, which speaks well of the economic vitality and prosperity of the businesses locating in the area, according to Bart. And when it comes to growth, the airport is taking a measured approach, looking first at rebuilding the concourse area and going forward from there.
With major air carriers in bankruptcy or restructuring, fleets are changing and more regional carriers are establishing service. “The long and the short of it is there are just fewer jets in the market, but the load factor – the number of passengers in seats – is up, so with high levels, we have more seats filled on every plane,” said Bart. And soon there will be more planes – in the next month, six more flights will be leaving RTIA regularly.
Reno’s successful airport and its director have been noticed, too. Bart recently received the Airport Director of the Year award for airports serving less than 5 million passengers annually (see sidebar). And this success is vital to the continued prosperity of the region. “I think it’s important to note the critical nature of airports in their communities,” said Bart. “Any successful community in the world has a successful airport. Years ago, towns sprang up near railroads, which gave them an economic boost. Now the airport fills that role.” RTIA isn’t just responding to Northern Nevada’s healthy economy, said Bart; it’s actually impacting it.
At the other end of the state, McCarran International Airport is very much involved in building new infrastructure. In fact, it’s been building as long as Randall Walker, director of aviation, Clark County, has been there – 16 years.
“We obviously feel a direct impact from growth,” said Walker. “Analysis shows over the last couple of decades, that for every hotel room added to the community, 320 additional airport passengers are generated – that’s 160 coming in and 160 going out. So the addition of 10,000 hotel rooms means another 3.2 million passengers moving through the airport. We need to plan facilities to accommodate that number of passengers.”
The county has a master plan in place that shows what needs to be built to reach an ultimate airport capacity that is sustainable. “You can always do more for a period of time, but at some point you have to stop,” said Walker. “You can’t run at 100 percent forever. Sustainable capacity is 53 million passengers a year, and in order to handle 53 million passengers we have to know what facilities to have in place. We already have the master plan and all the significant projects are under construction or under design.”
Those significant projects include improvements to the airfield, the terminal and the roadway leading to the airport, to the tune of some $3.8 billion over the next five years.
Some time ago Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) identified and initiated five “super projects” across the state. Those included the Carson freeway and the I-580 project in Northern Nevada and three projects in Southern Nevada – the widening of I-15 between the California-Nevada state line and the exit at Tropicana Boulevard, widening U.S. 95 from the Spaghetti Bowl to Craig Road, and building the Hoover Dam bypass bridge south of Hoover Dam.
Those projects are all either currently underway or almost completed, according to Scott Magruder, public information officer, NDOT. The second phase of the Carson freeway project has been awarded to a construction company and work is set to start. The I-580 freeway extension connecting Reno at Mt. Rose Highway to Washoe Valley at Bowers Mansion – a $393 million contract – was recently awarded. The U.S. 95 project is wrapping up, as is the Hoover Dam bypass bridge and the I-15 project. Everything has either been funded or is almost complete.
This led NDOT to identify the next batch of highway improvements – the mega-super projects – identified as Project Neon, which will address the I-15 corridor in Las Vegas from I-515/U.S. 95 through the Las Vegas Spaghetti Bowl, the I-515 widening, and others planned for both Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada. Due to a $3.8 billion shortfall projected for highway infrastructure over the next few years, Gov. Kenny Guinn has set up a Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force to study future highway projects across the state.
Inside Washoe County limits in Northern Nevada, the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is hard at work. The agency is looking for ways to move people along the downtown corridors quickly and efficiently, especially as downtown condominium growth brings more and more residents into the heart of Reno. The toll-free Sierra Spirit bus service continues to shuttle residents and visitors through the downtown entertainment core and up to the University of Nevada, Reno. To minimize fuel costs, as well as reduce emissions, the RTC is also looking at a hybrid bus with both gas and electric motors.
In addition, the RTC is looking for ways to clear the air while moving the people. “Developing both a stable and clean source of renewable energy is imperative to our collective future,” said Derek Morse, RTC deputy executive director. “Nevada has abundant geothermal, solar and wind resources, which can be combined with both established and emerging technologies to meet our future energy needs.”
RTC is developing a Hydrogen Fuel Project (H2Fuel) in a joint effort with the University of Nevada Desert Research Institute, Ormat Air Products and the Department of Energy. H2Fuel will tap Northern Nevada geothermal resources to produce the hydrogen that will be used to power a fleet of transit vehicles. The venture, which will be the first real-world, large-scale H2Fuel plant in the U.S., includes plans for an anticipated 45-vehicle fleet.
Even with Northern Nevada’s slowdown in new construction and housing, Morse said future business looks good. More land-use developments are being proposed and jobs in the area, formerly expected to increase by 94 percent between 2002 and 2030, are now expected to increase 103 percent.
“Obviously, we have a very attractive community in the Reno/Sparks area and we’re receiving increasing attention from people in other areas. People today like it here and their children tend to stay in the area,” said Morse. “It’s a great place to live, a great economy, there are expanding job opportunities in high-tech, high-paying employment and businesses want to do business here. In so many ways, RTC is playing a key role in sustaining this positive atmosphere, now and for the future, in terms of quality of life, transportation, clean air and the ability to get around without traffic congestion.”
Flip a switch, turn a tap, hail a bus – Nevada’s infrastructure and the organizations behind it are keeping pace.