Building highways quickly enough to keep pace with Nevada’s growth is the No. 2 challenge facing the state’s transportation industry – challenge No. 1 is finding the money to fund those projects. Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada, pointed out, “Over the last two decades, Southern Nevada has been growing by an average of 100 additional cars on our roadways every day, and we anticipate we’ll continue to grow at that rate. Just to park those cars, you would need a strip of asphalt almost half a mile long.” In Washoe County, vehicle miles traveled per year increased from 2 billion in 1990 to about 3.65 billion in 2007. Greg Krause, executive director of the RTC of Washoe County, said the number is expected to go “much, much higher.” He added, “We need to grow our capacity by building new roads and, in some cases, widening existing roads. There are major needs, especially in the freeway system.”
A Blue Ribbon Committee of transportation experts formed by then-Gov. Kenny Guinn in 2005 estimated that almost every major road leading into and out of the Las Vegas Valley and the Reno area needed to increase capacity in order to keep up with growth. Its report, issued in 2006, predicted a $3.8 billion budget shortfall just for the 10 largest projects planned for completion by 2015. This figure did not include many smaller projects, nor did it account for maintenance of aging infrastructure.
Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), recently declared, “We still need to construct these mega-projects, and since 2006, we have seen double-digit inflation in materials needed for building roads, such as steel, asphalt and concrete. In addition, rising land prices have made it more expensive to purchase rights-of-way. Overall, we’ve identified billions of dollars of needs.” She estimated that the state’s shortfall for transportation projects will likely exceed $5 billion.
One Solution: Mass Transit
One way to slow down the need for more roads and highways is to provide alternate means of transportation, such as buses, light rail and even, a monorail. The RTC of Southern Nevada broke ground in August 2007 for the first phase of a $75 million rapid transit system known as ACE, which will use vehicles designed with many rail-like features, including level platform boarding and off-board fare collection.
The ACE Downtown Connector will run on dedicated lanes in downtown Las Vegas, eventually connecting to the Las Vegas Convention Center. It will continue in regular traffic lanes along the Strip. Each ACE car can accommodate more than 100 people. The Downtown Connector is scheduled to open in summer 2009. This project follows the rollout of the MAX bus rapid transit system in North Las Vegas in 2005.
In Northern Nevada, the RTC is developing two new transit centers for bus passengers. Sitework for the 4th Street Station in downtown Reno will begin in January 2008, with construction scheduled to begin in September 2008 and completion slated for January 2010. In downtown Sparks, the RTC is building the Centennial Plaza transit center at Victorian Square, with completion scheduled for Fall 2008.
The Monorail: Up, Up and Away
The Las Vegas Monorail, which opened in July 2004, operates on an elevated guideway running for 3.9 miles on a route that parallels the Las Vegas Strip. Its seven stations provide access to the Las Vegas Convention Center and to nearly every resort property on the Strip. Ingrid Reisman, vice president of Las Vegas Monorail Company, said, “We’re only one element of the transportation system, and we recognize that the monorail will never replace the need for taxis or buses. However, it’s absolutely necessary that we carry the number of people we do every day in the resort corridor. We are the only system that doesn’t rely on our already crowded roadways, and we’ve managed to get 25 million people out of vehicles since we began operations.” She pointed out that riders on the monorail can travel from one end of the system to the other in 15 minutes, a feat hard to duplicate on the traffic-clogged streets of the resort corridor, especially in peak hours.
A plan to extend the monorail from its current terminus at Sahara to downtown Las Vegas was cancelled in 2005 when federal funding for the project was withdrawn. “We see a need for additional expansion of the system, including to downtown,” said Reisman, “but the focus right now is expansion to the airport. That’s where we know we can drive ridership, and we know the system can support itself.” She said 70 percent of passengers arriving at McCarran International Airport go to the resort corridor.
Extending the monorail to the airport could cost as much as $500 million, an amount that may prove difficult to raise, considering the financial troubles the Las Vegas Monorail Company has recently experienced, However, Reisman said, “We have every confidence we will get financing, we will begin construction, and we will open the system when terminal three opens [in 2012]. We’re currently working on a financing plan and developing the final design, engineering, and ridership studies.”
Making Roads More Efficient
“You can’t widen a roadway enough,” said NDOT’s Martinovich. “You could widen I-15 through Las Vegas to 20 lanes each direction and still have congestion on the right hand side where people are getting on and off. It comes down to managing what you have. That’s where we partner with the RTCs, not only to increase the capacity of the roads, but also to manage them through high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, ramp metering and other mechanisms.”
In Southern Nevada, the RTC, NDOT and the Nevada Highway Patrol have formed a cooperative venture called Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation (FAST). Headquartered in a building near Decatur and the I-215 Beltway, it both monitors and controls traffic. A total of 62 closed-circuit cameras located at strategic points across the Las Vegas Valley allow observers in the FAST control center to monitor traffic in real time. Snow said this system allows FAST to see if signals at intersections are maintaining good traffic flow so adjustments can be made. If an accident occurs, Highway Patrol officers at FAST can send help or report it to city police.
The traffic control aspect of the FAST system is achieved through traffic signals, ramp meters, dynamic message signs and lane-use control signals. Ramp meters have been in use for more than a year in core areas of the I-15 resort corridor. According to Snow, “A trip along I-15 from the I-215 Beltway at the south end of the Strip to the Spaghetti Bowl near downtown (a distance of about nine miles) used to take 15 to 25 minutes during peak hours, but due to the deployment of ramp meters and other improvements, it now takes an average of eight minutes. It has really improved the flow on the freeway.”
When US 95 was recently expanded from downtown Las Vegas through the Rainbow Curve, it included one HOV lane in each direction, restricted to motorcycles and cars with two or more passengers. NDOT is currently testing the system, according to Martinovich. “Although HOV restrictions are in effect 24 hours a day now, we’re evaluating to see whether to keep them at 24 hours or only at peak times. We’ll make adjustments as we go along, but the object is to encourage drivers to share rides.”
The RTC of Washoe County has been promoting the use of traffic roundabouts to reduce traffic delays and make roads safer. “We’re always looking for ways to make the system more efficient, and in certain locations roundabouts can do that,” said Krause. “They reduce delay and congestion, and by limiting the instances in which cars have to stop, they also reduce air pollution. Research has shown they decrease accidents for both cars and pedestrians.” A roundabout on Wells Avenue was the first successful experiment in Reno. Another at Kietzke and Neil was completed in September 2007, and two more off Pyramid Highway are scheduled for early 2008.
Driving in the Cone Zone
Efficiency can only improve traffic conditions to a certain point, and then current roadways must be expanded, and new ones must be designed and built. NDOT and the local RTCs have completed many huge projects in the last few years, and many more are on the drawing board. Krause pointed out the long-range nature of highway planning, saying, “We are in the process now of looking at the year 2040. A group of community citizens is helping us develop a new plan, which will be ready by mid-2008.”
In Las Vegas, the most expensive project in NDOT history was completed in December 2007 after 10 years of work and a cost of about $520 million. US 95 was widened from six lanes to 10 from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Rainbow Boulevard, and from four lanes to six beyond Rainbow to Craig Road.
One massive project that has been underway for several years is the Hoover Dam Bypass. Each day, more than 14,000 vehicles travel over Hoover Dam on a two-lane highway built more than 70 years ago. To relieve the traffic bottlenecks caused on this major route, NDOT, the federal government and other partners are constructing a concrete-arch, steel-deck bridge about a mile south of the dam. With 1500 feet of clear span, the bridge will carry four lanes of traffic and should be completed in 2010.
Opening the bridge is certain to change traffic patterns in Southern Nevada and Arizona, and residents of Boulder City are concerned that vehicles that currently go south to Searchlight and Laughlin will start going through their small town to get to the new bridge, creating major traffic congestion. NDOT has been developing a plan to build a road that bypasses Boulder City. “We’ve received some federal funding toward the first phase, but we don’t have funding for the rest of it. In the meanwhile, we’re working with Boulder City to develop interim improvements,” said Martinovich.
Funding: Who Pays and How?
In addition to major construction projects in urban areas, Nevada transportation agencies have to make sure roads in rural areas are built and maintained. As Krause pointed out, “NDOT has to maintain an interstate system with many miles of roadway in very rural and low-population areas. The rural counties need assistance to maintain those roadways, and they receive it from Clark and Washoe counties. A portion of our fuel taxes at the state and federal level needs to go toward roads in the rural areas.”
Another ongoing expense is maintenance on roads and bridges. Martinovich said NDOT’s pavement preservation program, designed to prevent problems other states have seen with aging infrastructure, is underfunded. “There is currently an $800 million backlog in this program for both bridges and roadways, and going forward we estimate this could reach a $2 billion shortfall,” she said.
In Washoe County, major state highway projects for 2007-2011 are expected to total approximately $81.1 million. “We’re looking at major funding shortfalls because we rely heavily on gas taxes,” said Krause. “As the price of gasoline goes up, people are reducing their consumption and switching to more fuel-efficient vehicles. In addition, double-digit inflation in materials needed for road construction has eroded the purchasing power of the money we collect from gas tax.”
One result of this anticipated shortfall was a major increase in the regional road impact fees charged to new development in Washoe County. The RTC board and local governments approved a 50 percent fee increase that went into effect in December 2007. “Based upon our analysis, we will need even more significant increases in those fees and within six months, we’ll probably bring up recommendations for additional increases,” said Krause.
The 2007 Legislature approved $1 billion in new highway spending over the next two years. The funding plan earmarked existing room, car rental and property taxes to pay for highway construction, but did not assess any new taxes. The question of the budget shortfall estimated at $5 billion still remains.
Nevada usually receives about 22 percent of its highway revenue stream from the federal government, but that amount is not guaranteed, and is becoming more uncertain than ever. “The current transportation bill expires in 2009, and there’s talk there will be a huge drop in the amount of funding available for transportation,” said Martinovich. “In the past, we estimated $43 billion would be distributed to the states, but now we’re hearing that number may be cut to as little as $27 billion. That’s a huge decrease, if it does come to pass.”
If state funding is not approved and federal funding increases seem doubtful, where will the money come from to pay for transportation projects? Fee increases like those in Washoe County are one solution. Other suggestions are increasing gasoline taxes, raising licensing fees, and increasing fees for trucks based on miles traveled in Nevada. Other states have established toll roads or special toll lanes on highways. A panel created by Gov. Gibbons is currently examining whether Nevada laws should be changed to allow public-private partnerships to develop roadways.
“We [NDOT] support the governor’s position that he doesn’t want to raise taxes. We can provide background information about what other states have done to raise funds and what effect those programs have had,” said Martinovich. “We want to put NDOT in a position that, should the Legislature pass any of these ideas, we’ll be prepared to enact them.”
Airports Expanding to Accommodate Growth
Although airports in both Northern and Southern Nevada are experiencing growing pains, they are funded by tenant and concession fees rather than depending on government funds. Therefore, they haven’t experienced the budget crisis facing the highway system.
Krys T. Bart, the executive director/CEO for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, is responsible for directing operations at the Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RTIA) and the Reno Stead Airport. Approximately 5.2 million passengers per year go through RTIA, which features 93 outbound flights per day, going to 23 cities. “No community our size compares to us with the number of flights or the number of seats,” said Bart.
She said RTIA does not currently need to expand its runways. “We have quite a sophisticated airfield, both in terms of pavement and technology,” she stated. “However, we are aggressively planning expansion of the airport, so by the year 2012 we should be under construction on a new concourse, which will give us more room for concessions and operating spaces for airlines. We plan to start the bidding process for this in late 2008.”
RTIA recently began a $44 million project that will take about 18 months to complete. A new in-line, high-security system for baggage check-in is being built behind the ticket counters, allowing passengers to check their bags at the ticket counter instead using the large screening machines currently in the lobby. “It will be not only a security enhancement, but also a customer service enhancement,” said Bart.
Bart said the Airport Authority also plans to add additional hangars for corporate aircraft, and in December, ground was broken for a Hyatt Place hotel for business travelers. Located on land owned by the airport authority, the 120-room non-gaming hotel will provide an additional source of revenue for the agency.
At the Reno Stead Airport, the airport authority has made $45 million in improvements during the last two years, including an instrument landing system and new hangars for private aircraft.
Randall Walker, director of aviation for Clark County, reported that more than 48 million passengers came through McCarran International Airport in 2007, an increase of around 4 percent from the previous year and an increase of 25 percent over the last three years. According to current estimates, the airport’s sustainable capacity is about 53 million passengers a year. “We might go as high as 55 million for a short while, but you can’t run at 100 percent forever,” explained Walker. “You have to allow for some facilities to be offline for periodic renovation or improvements.”
The capital plan for the airport, McCarran Mission 2020, includes a total of $3.7 billion in construction projects to bring McCarran to its ultimate buildout, scheduled for 2012. While some of these projects have been completed, many others are currently underway. The fourth leg of the D gates is under construction, and nine gates will be completed and opened in June 2008. A new security checkpoint for the C gates, which will open in April 2008, will give McCarran 12 additional checkpoint lanes and will include a connector bridge between the B and C gates to allow passengers to make secure connections. Baggage claim is being remodeled and the carousels are being enlarged to expand their capacity. Escalators and moving walkways are also undergoing renovation. The single largest project in McCarran’s history will also be put out to bid in 2008. The $1.8 billion Terminal 3 will have its own ticketing, baggage claim and parking. An underground train will connect the D gates with the new terminal, scheduled to open in mid-2012.
Opening a new terminal will allow more space for people and baggage, but Walker explained the constraining factor in McCarran’s space crunch is the landlocked airfield. “We may have the terminal facilities to handle people, but if we can’t get the planes in and out, that won’t matter,” he said.
Airports in Henderson and North Las Vegas are general aviation “reliever” airports whose purpose is to provide a place for smaller planes to land so they don’t have to use McCarran.
The ultimate solution for McCarran’s problems will be the construction of a new airport on 6,000 acres of land between Jean and Primm in the Ivanpah Valley. The original schedule called for the Ivanpah airport to open in 2017, but the first step in the project is getting a completed Environment Impact Statement. “We’re about two years into that five-year process, which we originally estimated would be done in 2010,” said Walker. “If we can’t make up some time over the next three years, the whole timeline will be pushed forward.”