Business. Pleasure. Entertainment. Outdoor recreation. In winter, skiing and snow sports. In summer, every other outdoor recreational activity imaginable. Year round, for conventions. And sometimes, simply because that particular airport is a hub. For whatever the reason, even with the slow economy, people are still flying into Nevada, accessing mass transit and utilizing public roadways and transportation once they’re here. In light of the recession, what kind of air travel, public transportation, mass transit and roadway adventures will they have?
In the Air
Nevada unemployment was at 14.3 percent in July, according to Nevada Department of Education, Training and Rehabilitation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracks unemployment through a four quarter moving average, the actual unemployment rate in Nevada through July was 21.5 percent. Though construction held steady through July, the industry has lost 55 percent of its jobs since the peak in 2006.
Which makes the new construction at McCarran International Airport in Southern Nevada a breath of much needed fresh air. The largest construction project in the state, Terminal 3 is the largest component of the Clark County Department of Aviation’s $3 billion capital improvement plan. During peak construction in December 2009, the project supported nearly 2,000 construction workers.
“All the different projects for Terminal 3 cost $3 billion,” said Rosemary A. Vassiliadis, deputy director, department of aviation, Clark County. The terminal building itself is a $2.4 billion project that will create a standalone unit with its own ticketing, baggage claim, parking garage, curb for pick up and drop off, with as many as 20 of the D gates to be located there.
“What I tell all the local groups is we’re going to be a real airport and they’re going to have to look to see which terminal they’re going to be flying in and out of, just like airports in big cities,” said Vassiliadis.
Terminal 3 will also house the international gates, taking the place of the current Terminal 2 international gates. The six new international gates also have their own security checkpoints, the first built at the airport since the events of 9/11 forced changes on every airport’s existent security. Terminal 3 is expected to be operational June 2012.
Terminal 3 will affect McCarran’s bottom line with a unified raise in charges airlines have already agreed to, and possibly by increasing the draw for international passengers. “The numbers of international passengers have grown. They stay longer, spend more money and are a higher level of passenger for us,” said Vassiliadis.
It’s not just the number of international travelers that’s grown. In July McCarran exceeded 3.5 million passengers for the year, actually a -1.1 percent change from July 2009, but the numbers are somewhat misleading. During 2010 U.S. Air pulled out of Las Vegas and because it wasn’t a destination carrier but a hub carrier, those passengers who were only passing through won’t be replaced. So the decrease is actually an increase since the -1.1 percent includes the 25 percent decrease from losing the U.S. Air seats.
Meanwhile, plans for the Ivanpah Airport, slated as a commercial airport in Ivanpah Valley, are on hold. Environmental Impact Studies were in progress when the decision was made to shelve the project based on the smaller number of passengers traveling by air.
The Reno-Tahoe International Airport’s annual economic impact of $3.24 billion in Northern Nevada didn’t blink much during the economic slowdown. There wasn’t much of a decrease in passengers moving through the airport, and there’s currently a very strong increase in both passengers and cargo, according to Krys T. Bart, airport director.
“The decline was enhanced by a major construction project we were doing, so we were employing a significant number of local carpenters for a $63 million baggage project, which was obviously an economic impact and compensated for the decline in passengers. If measured [the project] probably increased the airport’s economic impact,” said Bart.
Reno’s airport continues to grow. Federal Aviation Administration stats and reports through the Air Transportation Association report the Northern Nevada airport is number one in the country for medium and large airports increasing air service year after year, and in the middle of 2010, the airport had a 14 percent recovery of flights since last year. In addition, where cargo transport is up 8 percent across the country, it’s up 14.4 percent in Northern Nevada.
On the Ground
Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) is responsible for transit services, planning and engineering of transportation and roadway projects, and the freeway and arterial system throughout the Las Vegas Valley. Despite the economic slowdown, RTC is busy with new projects.
“There are always innovations happening in public transportation,” said Jacob L. Snow, general manager, RTC Southern Nevada. “We just have to wait and see which of them are going to catch hold.”
One of those innovations that’s catching hold is bus rapid transit – a bus system that’s nearly a light rail system, and which operates on the busiest streets, connecting people to jobs and visitor destinations quickly and efficiently. There are currently three lines of bus rapid transit in Las Vegas and one in Reno, RTC RAPID that runs along Virginia Street from Meadowood Mall to UNR to provide residents and visitors alike connectivity between hotels and Reno-Sparks Visitors and Convention Authority venues.
“It’s a very cost effective way to provide higher-end transit projects that provide most of the amenities of train services for the price of a bus,” said Snow. “It’s a way to really make improvements in mass transit at a low cost. I think that’s a big innovation and everybody in the country is doing some kind of bus rapid transit project, or they want to.”
Northern Nevada RTC functions as the planning organization for transportation projects in the region, working to leverage federal tax dollars back into the community. It’s also the regional street and highway provider, with funding from a voter-approved sales tax program RTC-5 which funds projects in the Truckee Meadows. In addition, RTC Northern Nevada is responsible for the ride system, overseeing bus and mass transit programs.
RTC agencies on both ends of the state work to maximize jobs. Since both Regional Transportation Commissions take bids from and make contracts with private sector companies, both agencies work to maximize jobs both by providing the transportation to them and by providing the jobs themselves.
Funding Foreseeable Futures
The construction industry in Nevada has lost 55 percent of jobs in the field since the peak of the building boom in 2006. Just as Terminal 3 at McCarran creates construction jobs, so do the projects funded through RTC efforts both north and south.
RTC receives a portion of its funding for roadway projects through a voter-approved sales tax program that, until this year, was set to expire in 2028. The 2010 Nevada Legislature approved Senate Bill 5, removing the sunset provision, allowing sales tax funding to exist in perpetuity. What does that mean?
“I think what it means for the community is the creation of probably a couple thousand construction jobs,” said Snow. “Then beyond that, from the more lasting standpoint we’re going to have a number of facilities that will make it easier to get around in the community, permanent facilities we’ll be able to enjoy for decades to come. And that comes at a time when we clearly need construction jobs and we also really benefit from the improvement to mobility.”
What it also means is that right now the RTC can leverage through bond sales roughly $200 million worth of additional revenue for projects.
Sales tax revenues aren’t the only source of funding. RTC Southern Nevada also received three types of ARRA stimulus funds [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009]: roadway funding ($39 million), transit funding ($33.6 million) and a grant to fund new rapid transit projects. RTC also partners with Nevada Department of Transportation on roadway projects; NDOT is separately funded.
The roadway funding projects include a brand new intermodal Bonneville Transit Center in downtown Las Vegas that will open in October. “We’re really excited about that,” said Snow. “It’s a $17 million project that we didn’t know how to fund. Without the stimulus bill being passed we never could have come up with the money.”
Transit projects include park and ride projects in the northwest valley, including Centennial Hills Transit Center and Park & Ride. “I think for the first time in our community people are parking their cars and taking bus transit in a significant way,” Snow said. Keep in mind that bus ridership is down due to the high unemployment and that most riders generally are going to and from work, and this is a significant milestone. It may be a cost conscious move for some people, but for others, Snow believes they’re taking it because RTC is providing a service that wasn’t there before.
The new transit line is funded by a $34.4 million TIGER grant, which stands for Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery.
The TIGER grant proves a significant shift in the way the federal government funds transportation projects. In the past, Snow said, the federal government allocated the money and the local agencies applied it. With the new TIGER grants, agencies can only apply for funds for specific projects which fit with federal priorities and rank high on scoring criteria. RTC received its TIGER grant for a rapid transit project on Sahara Avenue. “That project was specifically selected because of components the federal government wanted to prioritize innovation in low cost high quality rapid transit. They’re very, very interested in this project here in Las Vegas.”
RTC Northern Nevada used stimulus funds in two venues: the Meadowood Interchange which will reconfigure traffic at U.S. 395 and Neil Road, and for transit system upgrades. Funding for many other projects are funded by RTC-5 funds. Each funded project is a chance to put more Nevadans back to work.
“We are very sensitive to picking projects that not only create construction jobs but are going to contribute to the competitive advantage of our region to capture permanent jobs for the long term,” said Lee Gibson, executive director, RTC Northern Nevada. “And that’s why mobility concepts are so important to what we do and why we like intermodal projects that can help us create systems to run more smoothly, help the airport do business more competitively, projects that help the Virginia Street corridor compete for visitors and conventions. All those things we think are very, very important to help create permanent long-term jobs and diversify our economy.”
The Northern Nevada airport saw $9.6 million in stimulus money, which was used on the airfield to replace ramp area, according to Bart. “We had shovel-ready projects and those projects were able to use that money and get a head start on airfield reconstruction.” Not that airfield reconstruction is unusual – the airport is always reconstructing the airfield. “Our airfield is very, very pristine. The cement, the concrete, all the surfaces are in very good shape. We keep them that way for safety purposes, so we were fortunate that we’ve been able to put $9.6 million in ARRA money back into our airfield.”
In October a new air traffic control tower will open at the Reno-Tahoe Airport. Western Jet, a Gulfstream maintenance provider, will be opening a facility at Reno’s airport in 2010, a nice example of private sector bringing money into the Nevada community.
Funding for McCarran’s Terminal 3 comes from a variety of sources, including air rates and charges to airlines, from concessions and parking fees. Vassiliadis explained, “We bond for that money and that’s how it’s funded. That’s our capital plan. It’s funded through bond issues that are paid to our annual revenue sources. There are no local taxpayer dollars funding the airport. We are a self-sustaining enterprise fund.”
One of the features of Terminal 3 at McCarran will be a green attitude. A $27 million energy savings master plan is slated to integrate the entire airport into a more energy efficient facility, but because Terminal 3 is large – nearly half a mile long – the preponderance of energy savings program will be spent there.
Reno-Tahoe International Airport recently completed a project that replaced all runway and taxiway lights with LED lights which will greatly reduce energy consumption.
RTC Northern Nevada doesn’t see transportation as separate from the community, it sees transportation as integral to the community.
“Look around today and you see the neighborhoods that fared well through the recession were communities that offered businesses and residents choices with respect to living, working and mobility,” said Gibson. Portland, Oregon, has put in a regional rail system. Houston, Texas put in multimodal transportation five or six years ago. Both cities are weathering the recession fairly well.
“Smaller communities are doing the same thing,” said Gibson. They’re looking at multi-modal options to create communities that attract businesses that want to locate there because it’s where the top resources are and where they can grow, expand and develop the economy.
One trend seen in both ends of the state is bicycling. The complete streets theory assumes more than just automobiles will be using the road – pedestrians and bicycles are taken into account as well. Which is why on some streets, like Mill and Arlington in Reno, when they’re resurfaced and striped the number of car lanes is reduced and a bike lane put in.
There are more people out biking in both Northern and Southern Nevada. With nearly 300 sunny days and bike-friendly weather 10 months out of the year in the south, people are taking advantage of the climate. They may be figuring out it’s easier to stay healthy than get healthy and taking to the streets on bikes. Or it may be the new availability of bike lanes, suggests Gibson.
“Biking has become the new golf,” Snow said. “There’s momentum building up and it’s not like golf where you have to go out and practice to get good. Anybody can ride a bike because it’s just like riding a bike.”
“We’re cautiously optimistic about the future,” said Vassiliadis. Because the airport’s a discretionary location, we will continue keeping costs down as low as possible. “We understand people like to come to Las Vegas, they just don’t like to pay to come to Las Vegas.” So McCarran will continue working to keep costs down.
“We’ve weathered the downturn well because airports are the first indicators of upturns and downturns,” said Bart. At the beginning of the downturn the airport took aggressive steps, cutting budgets and renegotiating contracts. “We’ve been able to weather the storm exceedingly well and today we’re in good shape.”
Federal funding has made a big difference for RTC Southern Nevada but it did have to cut approximately half a million dollars out of capital improvement projects and cut back on transit routes.
“RTC Northern Nevada felt the crunch. “We rely on sales tax revenues for our public transportation program and like other governmental entities we’ve faced a significant downturn in those revenues,” said Gibson. “We’ve had to tighten our belts and make hard business choices in order to live within our means.
There is a bright side, a light at the end of the tunnel, which probably isn’t bus rapid transit (or a train): Industries that added jobs in 2010, according to DETR, include trade, transportation and utilities, which added 3,500 jobs since January.