There remains a good degree of uncertainty in Nevada’s transportation sector but also plenty of determination, innovation and well justified optimism.
Money is tight and legislative action often unpredictable, of course. But work on many fronts is proceeding, with a raft of projects being completed, green-lighted or planned in an industry that by its very nature spurs growth in nearly all others.
From airports to roadways, interchanges, express transit and more, Nevada is – quite literally – increasingly on the move. The June 27 opening of the $2.4 billion Terminal 3 at McCarran International Airport may eventually double the number of international visitors who come to Las Vegas each year. The terminal, with its own infrastructure of roadways, boarding gates, baggage claim, check-in counters, baggage ramps and 6,000-space parking garage, replaces the outdated Terminal 2. The seven gates set aside for international traffic should be running at capacity during peak travel periods this summer. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is kicking in nearly half a million dollars over the next two years for a joint marketing campaign with Copa Airlines, a Panamanian carrier that begins non-stop service between Panama City and Las Vegas on June 27.
McCarran International Airport’s Terminal 3 is the largest component of the Clark County Department of Aviation’s ongoing capital improvement plan, according to Chris Jones, Public Affairs & Marketing Manager for the Clark County Dept. of Aviation. It spans nearly 1.9 million square feet over three stories and include 14 gates, ticket counters, baggage claim, a multi-story parking garage, retail and dining outlets and TSA security checkpoints on two of the three levels. An underground tram will shuttle travelers to and from the D concourse, which is currently fed exclusively through Terminal 1.
The flexibility of processing passengers through another terminal is expected to greatly ease congestion throughout McCarran, particularly at Terminal 1, which was built to handle just 42 million annual passengers but has exceeded that figure in recent years.
“It means that McCarran is going to have the capacity that it needs to get up to 53 million passengers,” says Jones. “When we’ll get to that number will be dictated by the economy and when people travel. It is an absolutely significant project in terms of the history of the airport, and what it’s going to mean for Southern Nevada.” As recently as 2007 the airport saw nearly 48 million people; the number dropped to 41.5 million last year.
“The other critical key is that it will allow us to handle more international air service directly,” Jones points out. “We have four gates for international at present. We’ll have seven in the new facility.” Indeed, airport officials have already seen an impact in terms of international air service. “We have added three new international carriers just as a result of having the space to accommodate them.”
But McCarran isn’t the only airport being improved.
“Our airport is undergoing a massive renovation project right now,” reports Brian Kulpin, Vice President of Marketing and Public Affairs for the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority. “We’re redoing the entire terminal, and we call that the Gateway Project.” The authority is just putting the finishes touches on an all-new bag-claim area. “What we’ve done is taken what we consider to be the best of our region, which is the Tahoe look and feel, and extend that from our ticket lobby all through bag claim. The next phase going into next year is to extend it into the rest of the terminal.”
Part of what Kulpin concedes is a “pretty ambitious project” involves moving the airport’s two security checkpoints downstairs to the first floor and combining them. “That consolidated security checkpoint will go where our food court is.” All of the food establishments and stores will then be moved upstairs. Why do it?
“In today’s airport world, because of security, most people like to see the majority of the food, beverage and concessions past security,” Kulpin explains. “They want to get through security, be able to take a deep breath and then have what we in our industry call dwell time — time to sit down, get a bite to eat and maybe shop.”
Moving security down and food and retail up will allow the authority to “create a more attractive airport with better stores, better restaurants, and really make the all-important first and last impression on people coming and going from the community. Thus we call it the Gateway project.”
The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority is also looking to build an emergency operations center and terminal building at Reno-Stead Airport – according to Kulpin a $6-million project – and a taxiway extension at Reno Tahoe International. Reno-Stead is a large general aviation airport located in the North Valleys area, northwest of Reno’s central business district. It has no regularly scheduled service, functioning instead as a general aviation reliever for the nearby Reno/Tahoe International Airport. “We’re also doing what we call a general aviation aircraft apron, which is basically a parting area for general aviation aircraft.” All told, he adds, the next year will see about $43 million in projects going on.
“We’re positioning this airport for the economy recovery,” Kulpin concludes. “We just did an economic impact study that showed we generate $2 billion a year for the local economy, so this airport being the best that it can be is vital to this community. That’s why we’re putting this investment in, keeping this airport at its highest level and making that all-important first and last impression.”
“Gut level is that there is a lot of uncertainty because of the funding,” says Susan Martinovich, Director of the Nevada Department of Transportation, “and because right now we don’t have a federal transportation bill. We’ve been going through continuing resolutions; we don’t know when money is going to be available, how much money is going to be available, or the criteria for that funding. We have to be prepared for everything.”
NDOT’s most immediate projects are already funded, but funding, whether from the federal or state governments, comes in a variety of categories. “That’s some of our challenge,” Martinovich explains. “There are many funding categories. Some funding can only be spent on, say, the interstate for maintenance. There is some that can only be spent on capacity; some that can only be spent in Las Vegas, or only spent in Washoe County. We don’t want to leave any money on the table, so we’re adjusting funding for the projects.”
At present, NDOT is waiting to get all of its funding allocations for the Cactus Interchange on I-15. “It’s a new interchange,” Martinovich notes. “Right now it dead ends into I-15, so it will actually be an interchange to extend Cactus east and west along the I-15 corridor.”
There is also a pair of sizeable interstate maintenance projects on I-80 as well as phase one of the Boulder City Bypass project, which involves traffic improvements to US 93 in the Henderson and Boulder City. “We’ve identified federal funding for this year, but again we’re just waiting for that last three months of funding because the current continuing resolution expires at the end of June.” Also in process is a project to improve the I-580 interchange access between the South Virginia Street southbound ramp (Exit 63) and Neil Road (Exit 62) in Reno. As Martinovich concludes, “There is very much to do.”
The fact that the state’s gas tax revenues have been flat or in a state of decline, together with the uncertainty of federal monies, “has been a challenge to our funding,” says Martinovich. “But that being said, we’re looking at being creative in still moving forward with these projects.” Being creative may mean breaking some of the larger projects into smaller ones.
“I believe that if you go for all or nothing you could end up with nothing,” Martinovich explains, “so we try to take steps and phases to continue to move forward.” The need to continue progressing extends beyond the projects themselves, she adds. “Transportation is one of those areas that really does help the economy. If you have a good transportation system with less congestion and better safety that ultimately does help grow the economy. So that’s been our focus, to keep moving.”
Hangin’ In There
“I would say that we are surviving,” says Tina Quigley, General Manager of the Regional Transportation Commission (RTC) of Southern Nevada. “We’re not in a position to be growing our infrastructure right now due to funding challenges; we’re all based on tax revenues, and that has been a challenge.”
Another factor is that RTC’s other source of revenue is the motor vehicle fuel tax, which has not changed since 1995. “It’s been 9c per gallon since then, and it’s not indexed to any factor, it’s just a flat 9c. Our revenue from that source has not increased, so that’s a challenge.”
Quigley believes that funding for future projects “is going to be the biggest challenge of all. I think that regionally, we’re going to have to start thinking bigger than we have in terms of infrastructure. I attend planning meetings with the other intermountain metropolitan transportation planning organizations — from places like Phoenix, Salt Lake, Denver and Reno — and it’s apparent to me that they have put a lot of thought into how we’re going to come back from this recession and how they’re going to diversify their economies. And a big component of that is investment in infrastructure.” For Nevada, and Southern Nevada in particular, to be competitive, she adds, they are going to have to start thinking about those types of projects, as well.
Quigley is convinced that commuters can expect a further increase in gas prices, providing RTC with an opportunity to start reaching out to those commuters with its transit service. “That’s one of the goals for this summer, and we’ve got a team of people working on it,” she says.
One way will be by reaching out to some of the major employers to create opportunities to talk with their employees. “That will help us figure out where they are working, where they are living, what times of day they are commuting and whether our services are matching their needs. We’ve actually developed a pretty successful grid system — that’s the system of transit corridors that goes East-West and North-South — and we’ve got some express services that we’ve introduced this last year.” All of the systems are seeing increased ridership.
Recently introduced express services include the Strip & Downtown Express (which provides a convenient option for travel between the resort corridor and downtown Las Vegas while also providing service to the Fremont Street Experience, World Market Center, Clark County Government Center and both Las Vegas Premium Outlet Malls); the Westcliff Airport Express (providing residents of the western part of the valley with a fast limited-stop transit option to Downtown, the Strip, and McCarran International Airport); and the Henderson & Downtown Express (a limited-stop route offering faster service and fewer stops when traveling Boulder Highway between Downtown Las Vegas and Henderson). The Sahara Express rapid transit line, which debuted on May 20, includes dedicated transit lanes along much of Sahara Avenue, from Hualapai Way in the western part of the valley to Boulder Highway in the east and branches into neighborhoods north and south of Sahara Avenue near Nellis Boulevard.
Quigley believes that the months ahead can prove to be an exciting time for Nevada transportation. “We’d like to see the ability to grow our infrastructure and our system as well, but we’re not in a bad place, either.”