Although it’s been criticized for having earmarks that will supposedly save the salt marsh harvest mouse from extinction and reduce community violence through tattoo removal in California, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) is praised by transportation leaders in Nevada as a veritable Godsend of monies that has enabled them to continue their all important task of keeping Nevadans moving safely and efficiently through the state’s transportation systems. “The ARRA funds have been a lifesaver for us and for thousands of construction workers in Southern Nevada,” explains Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada (RTC South). With a lengthy list of projects needing to be done, Lee Gibson, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC North), says the ARRA funds have helped them tackle work in a more efficient and effectual manner. “We were able to spread our peanut butter around more effectively,” he says.
Described as a sweeping legislative solution that will help stimulate the sagging economy, ARRA was funded to hand out around $800 billion nationwide over the past several years to recipients that include infrastructure, education, clean energy, healthcare, unemployment benefits and global warming. Although many of the jobs that resulted have been short-term and some of the projects considered of questionable merit throughout the country, at the very least many Nevadans will benefit from noticeably more efficient, safe and up-to-date transportation due to the variety of projects that have been made possible through ARRA funds. “What we did differently from other states was that we spent it down to the local level,” explains Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT). “Every county got money to do local projects.” Because money was spread around to agencies at different levels of government as well as to various types of transportation, the affect is expected to be widespread, with orange cones a ubiquitous sight all over the state.
Like the shot heard round the world, the affects of nearly $200 million in ARRA funds have been felt throughout the state with NDOT’s stimulus expenditures in all 17 counties. Seventy-one projects ranging in size from upgrading traffic signals and replacing sidewalk ramps at US 95 and SR 359 in Mineral County for $46,561 to road construction work along Kyle Canyon and Lee Canyon roads in Clark County for $29,722,969 have been beneficiaries of the funds, according to statistics provided by NDOT. Other projects include improvements to Six Mile Canyon Road in Lyon County for $641,720, work on Silver Peak Road in Esmeralda County for $582,401, construction of the Meadowood Mall Way interchange in Washoe County for $18,473,423 and improvements to US 93 in Elko County for $10,645,650.
While most of the projects have been completed, a few are still under construction. “Most of the money has been spent and all of it has been obligated,” Martinovich says. Between 2009 and this July, 17,428 job positions were involved.
Martinovich is a firm believer in the value of putting money into infrastructure. “My view is that investment in transportation is an investment in the economy. You put people to work and you have a product when you’re done that benefits people for years,” she says. The critical factor, however, is to have plans in place when funding becomes available. “We have to make sure that when we get money that we have projects ready to go,” she emphasizes.
With $39.1 million of ARRA funding designated for roadway projects, RTC South wasted no time in using monies for repaving numerous roadways in Las Vegas, Boulder City, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Mesquite and Clark County. Another $33.6 million was designated for improvements to transit service through the Bonneville Transit Center, The Centennial Hills Transit Center and Park & Ride and the Boulder Highway Express and Henderson Downtown Express projects. Private sector jobs were created because much of the work was outsourced to construction companies.
Boasting a bike center with storage, lockers and showers, the Bonneville Transit Center opened last year as the central transportation hub for RTC’s transit services. At a cost of around $5.6 million in stimulus monies, the center is expected to be LEED Gold certified. The Centennial Hills Transit Center, which includes a park and ride lot, was also completed last year at a cost of $6 million in ARRA funds. Around $20 million of stimulus funds was used to construct dedicated transit lanes and improved transit stations along Boulder Highway. Service along the Boulder Highway Express, that connects downtown Las Vegas and the Galleria Mall as well as service on the Henderson Downtown Express, which links downtown Las Vegas with downtown Henderson, began just last month.
The RTC South is also in the process of completing a rapid transit line along Sahara Avenue through the use of a $34.4 million TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) discretionary grant that is funded through ARRA monies. Featuring dedicated transit lanes, enhanced shelters and improvements to the Intelligent Transportation System network, the project is expected to be finished by February next year.
Although the transportation system in Washoe County can, at times, seem like one huge construction zone, only a small percentage of work is due to ARRA funds. RTC received $7.35 million in stimulus monies of which $3.7 million was dedicated to improvements such as bus wash replacement, HVAC and energy upgrades and solar installation on its Villanova Terminal and Sutro facilities. The remaining portion of the total funds was allocated to the 4th Street Station. ARRA monies to construct the Meadowood Mall Way Interchange passed through RTC to NDOT. Kicked off in the summer of 2010, the approximately two-year project will reconfigure the existing I-580 Interchange at Neil Road to a split diamond which will improve the flow of traffic in one of the most congested and critical retail areas in Truckee Meadows. RTC North is also partnering with NDOT to widen I-580 and I-80 in several strategic areas of Washoe County.
The lion’s share of road improvements was made possible by the passage of SB201 in the 2009 session of the Nevada State Legislature which enabled the RTC to receive $270 million in revenue bonds which is expected to be spent between FY 2010 and 2013. The list of road improvements runs from Avenida De Landa to Vista Boulevard, leaving few areas immune to “closed” and “detour” signs.
Aside from meeting the challenges of physically maintaining the transportation infrastructure, Gibson says the agency has been fine tuning the way it does business since the economic meltdown began a few years ago. “We have rededicated ourselves to customer service. We make sure we’re doing everything right,” he says. With the loss of more than 30 percent of the administrative staff, management has also increased its efforts in pooling resources through collaboration, partnering, efficiency management and future planning. “We’re updating our long-range plan. We need to take a hard look at it so that it reflects economic reality. And we need to find opportunities,” he explains.
A drop in the total ARRA bucket in Nevada, airports received around $20 million with North Las Vegas Airport receiving $7.8 million to relocate a high voltage utility line, Carson City Airport using around $9 million to improve a runway, the Boulder City Municipal Airport spending $1.3 million to enhance a runway and Reno-Tahoe International using $2.2 million for work on its apron and ramp areas. Reno-Tahoe International Airport and McCarran International Airport have been very successful, however, in finding funding other than ARRA monies for large construction projects that have continued to enhance the airport’s operations.
Reno-Tahoe International Airport
Nationally recognized for its efficient operation, Reno-Tahoe International has systematically been improved over the years with a variety of projects that continuously move up in the construction queue. “We’ve been able to weather the economic ups and downs. We’ve reduced staff numbers,” says Marily Mora, chief operating officer. “We need to stay competitive with our rates and charges.” The commitment to keep up was showcased from 2009 to 2010 with around $170 million spent on construction of a new control tower, sound insulation program and an airport hotel, along with airfield repaving and lighting, a redesign of the US Customs facility and improvements to airport baggage check-in.
Upcoming projects in the near future total around $40 million in costs and include construction on the Checkpoint of the Future, a terminal/emergency operations command center site and building, a snow removal equipment building, terminal refurbishment and an extension to taxiway C. Passengers will be most aware of the new checkpoint which will consolidate security into a single point on the ground floor of the terminal. “The consolidation will accommodate advanced imaging technology that lets you walk through,” Mora explains. “It’s geared to be more self-service.” Retail services will be moved upstairs. “People want to buy food and beverage and shop after the checkpoint,” Mora says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on customer service.”
In addition to enhancing services in the main terminal, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Board of Trustees has diligently worked to expand land development around the airport by attracting businesses that serve general and small aviation. The door was opened for growth in this arena several years ago when French-owned Dassault Falcon opened a west coast service center at Reno-Tahoe International. When fully staffed, the 40,000-square-foot facility will be home to 40 Dassault Falcon personnel. Following on the heels of Dassault, Million Air announced its intentions to build a two-phase $20-million aviation service center at the corner of Rock Boulevard and Mill Street with the first phase expected to be complete late next year.
With 17 consecutive months of growth in cargo, airport officials say they look to that as another source of increased revenue which could contribute to economic diversification and growth of the region. With Tahoe-Regional Industrial Park just over the hill, distribution numbers are inching up as its tenants feed cargo to the airport. “We want to be a convenient airport, but we want to be reflective of the community,” Mora says.
McCarran International Airport
McCarran International Airport has been a beehive of construction activity for the past several years as the Clark County Department of Aviation, its owner and manager, spends $30 billion of its own revenues on airport improvements that will help the airport serve its annual 40+ million passengers for years to come. Claiming $2.4 billion of the funding, Terminal 3 (T3) sprawls over 1.9 million square feet as it adds 14 gates and additional ticket counters along with all the accouterments found in a modern airport concourse. With six gates designed to handle international traffic, T3 will help facilitate the increase in foreign flights as well as aid in relieving overall congestion in the airport. It will be the new home to Alaska Airlines, Frontier, JetBlue, Sun Country and Virgin America plus all international airlines that serve McCarran. Hawaiian Airlines and United/Continental will have ticketing and baggage claim at T3, but their flight operations will be located in the D Concourse. T3 is right on schedule, expecting to welcome its first passengers in June 2012.
In addition to T3, other improvements underway at McCarran include a new air traffic control tower, runway status lights system, airport surface detection equipment and upgrades to the C Concourse, to name a few. Rising 352 feet from the ground, the new state-of-the-art control tower will be one of the tallest in the country. It is scheduled to open in early 2015.
One of the best nuggets of positive news at McCarran, however, has nothing to do with new construction projects. After months of falling passenger numbers, the airport is starting to see a bit of a turnaround, according to Randy Walker, director of the Clark County Department of Aviation. “We’ve seen a four percent increase in passenger numbers,” he says. “The growth is from everywhere, but Spirit Airlines gives us the most. A lot of carriers have added service here and there.” Walker says the increased numbers are probably due to more people attending conventions in the area as well as people traveling who held off taking trips until now due to the poor economy. “There are people who are still okay, but didn’t feel right about taking a vacation before,” he says. “Las Vegas is a nice mini vacation.”
While improvements at McCarran have positioned it to deal competitively with the air travel market in the near future, Walker worries about how it will fare in the long-term when growth picks up again. Squeezed into just 2,800 acres and bounded by major transportation arteries, the airport doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room in which to expand. “We’re just restricted on space,” he says. Unlike Reno-Tahoe International, McCarran doesn’t have the available land to use for expansion into other aviation related businesses. “If growth had continued, we’d have run out of space,” Walker explains. In that eventuality, the airport department already has its eyes on land for a second airport to be built on a dry lakebed near Primm.
As transportation movers and shakers around the state plan for long-term goals, discussion in and out of the legislature has swirled around the wisdom and feasibility of pursuing alternate sources of revenue, building Interstate 11, constructing an inland port in Southern Nevada and emphasizing more choices in transportation. Of immediate concern is the potential for cuts in federal funding and the shrinking revenues obtained from the gasoline tax which result in budget shortfalls on a number of levels. “The biggest concern I have is where funding is going to come from,” Snow says. Potential sources of increased revenue include the following:
– Raising the tax on gasoline.
– Taxing vehicle miles driven (VMT).
– Taxing the therm rate on natural gas vehicles.
– Taxing the electrical use on electric cars.
– Assessing additional taxes and/or increasing the sales tax.
– Charging tolls for certain roadways.
Although no single source or combination of revenue sources has become the favorite so far, it appears that unless the economy begins to improve significantly in the near future, Nevadans will undoubtedly need to open serious discussion on how to continue to maintain their infrastructure in the face of serious revenue shortfalls.
As Arizona and Nevada began upgrading chunks of US 93 between Phoenix and Las Vegas in recent years, transportation planners realized the economic impact that could result from having the entire route converted to Interstate standards. Sections that have already been improved include the Hassayampa Freeway, the US 93 Expressway from Wickenburg to I-40, the I-40 Overlap to Kingman, US 93 Expressway I-40 to Hoover Dam, the Hoover Dam Bypass, the Boulder City Bypass and I-515 from Railroad Pass Casino to I-15. Although the value of a total high-speed expressway designated as I-11 is supported by many people, the proposal in its entirety has yet to be formally embraced due to the magnitude of the cost.
Improving the route between Phoenix and Las Vegas will help commercial traffic move goods from west to east as well as facilitate more leisure travel along the way, according to Martinovich. “Anything to help good movement is a tremendous need. Time is money when moving goods,” she explains. Tourism will also be impacted in a positive way as visitors to the area realize that the trip is easier and quicker to make. Although the funding isn’t available yet, Martinovich emphasizes that the idea needs to be kept alive. “You’ve got to start planning. There are opportunities to do it in pieces,” she says. Gibson is also on board with his support. “It just makes sense. It’s worthy and we need to support it because it benefits the region,” he says. Snow has some faith that progress will continue. “We’re starting to see support from Congress,” he says. “I believe it will go forward incrementally.”
New life was breathed into the possibility of developing an inland port in Southern Nevada when AB 182 was signed into law in May, authorizing the Commission on Economic Development to develop a state plan for inland ports. The concept began to take shape some years ago when huge bottlenecks developed at the ports in San Diego and Los Angeles because large volumes slowed down the processing time of goods moving through. However, before the economic downturn, Nevada wasn’t competitive enough to make the idea a reality because commercial occupancy rates and rents in the state were quite high. Now, with occupancy and rents much lower, some business and political leaders believe that the idea of an inland port is worth exploring.
Nevada’s proximity to major urban areas in California is a big advantage, according to Gibson. “The LA Basin is a very congested and land-short market,” he says. Nevada, on the other hand, is still blessed with wide open spaces which can be used to attract new business and industry. Martinovich is also enthusiastic about the concept despite the lack of specific plans at this point. “The devil is in the details. We’d have to work on this so we’d not cause more congestion. It would also involve technology,” she explains.
To some transportation leaders, however, serious future planning must involve rethinking the entire transportation system. “We need to redesign the system not based strictly on the automobile. This will include all modes of transportation,” Snow says. “We have to integrate transportation with land use.” By offering bike paths, mass transit (including high-speed rail), pedestrian trails and sidewalks along with roads for cars, safety can be increased and the quality of life improved. “We have to develop choices in transportation. We’ll see more use by everyone with redesign. Choice means safety for everybody,” Gibson says. “We’ll work with developers to promote more mixed use.”
As they consider the challenges ahead, Nevada’s transportation leaders agree that a healthy transportation system is central to economic growth and recovery. Committed to being part of the solution to the state’s economic woes, they say they believe the Silver State will recover and that growth will pick up once again. “There was a lot of worry when the air went out of the real estate bubble that people would leave,” Snow says. “We haven’t seen the mass exodus. We’re still seeing a very small growth rate.” Gibson believes that Nevada will always be attractive. “A lot of people love living here. We have to think our way out of this recession. It’s about people,” he says. “We can come together to get the economy back on its feet and do it one job at a time.”