According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nevada’s 1.95 percent population growth rate from July 2015 to July 2016 made it the second fastest-growing state in the country, slightly behind Utah’s 2.03 percent. With the state’s official population nearing the three million mark, how is infrastructure keeping up with growth?
The Orange Cone Zone
Some of the funding for Nevada’s road projects comes from county fuel taxes. In 2008, Washoe County voters approved a measure allowing their local fuel tax to adjust to inflation every year, helping agencies in charge of roads maintain their purchasing power.
“Fuel tax indexing gave us the current and projected revenue needed to issue four bonds that helped us move forward on a wide variety of projects across the region,” said Lee Gibson, CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC). “During the recession, it helped us create construction jobs when there weren’t any, and also keep some of the skilled workers in the region. As a result, we have a pool of labor we can tap into now that we have returned to the good times.”
A temporary fuel tax increase took effect in Clark County in 2013, and last November Clark County voters approved a 10-year extension of fuel tax indexing that could raise the tax by up to 3 cents each year. Over that 10-year period, it’s expected to raise roughly $3 billion for local road construction, maintenance and repair projects.
Jay Smith, president of Las Vegas Paving, which holds contracts for several huge road projects in Southern Nevada, said his company was hit hard by the recession, but he sees jobs gradually coming back, in part due to fuel tax indexing. “We’re optimistic about it bringing quite a bit more work to the table,” he said.
Major Road Projects South
Rudy Malfabon, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT), said $110 million of NDOT’s $1.3 billion budget for the 2016-2017 biennium is earmarked for maintenance of existing roads and structures. The rest goes toward construction projects that are changing the way an ever-increasing number of Nevadans travel from town to town and from home to work. These huge construction projects require several years of preliminary work before the first shovel breaks ground, including traffic studies, environmental assessments and funding plans. Malfabon said he attended his first meeting on Project Neon in 2003, construction began in 2016, and it’s scheduled for completion in mid-2019.
Project Neon near downtown Las Vegas, the largest public works project in Nevada history, is a $1 billion widening of I-15 between Sahara Avenue and the U.S. 95 Spaghetti Bowl interchange. The project covers 3.7 miles of I-15 that is the busiest stretch of highway in the Nevada, with 300,000 vehicles per day, 25,000 lane changes per hour, and three crashes daily. Traffic through the corridor is expected to double by 2035, so even though Southern Nevada drivers have been inconvenienced by Phase 1 (labeled “Car-nado”) and Phase 2 (“The Big Squeeze”), NDOT is forced to make major infrastructure changes to keep up with traffic demands. The project includes a full diamond interchange for Charleston Boulevard and an 81-foot-tall, 2,606-foot-long HOV flyover from southbound U.S. 95 to southbound I-15 that also accommodates carpool traffic from northbound I-15 to U.S. 95 northbound. During “The Big Squeeze” from March through the end of 2017, U.S. 95 is being narrowed to only two lanes in each direction between Rancho Drive and the Spaghetti Bowl interchange.
Another NDOT project designed to keep up with growth is the Centennial Bowl Interchange linking U.S. 95 and the 215 Northern Beltway in northwest Las Vegas. More than 107,000 vehicles currently use the ramps and freeways each day, and NDOT estimates that number will reach 160,000 vehicles by 2036. Parts of the multi-phase project were opened to traffic in 2016, but completion of the entire $47 million interchange, which includes a 2,500-foot-long bridge crossing the two major freeways, is not expected until 2020.
Further south, Clark County Public Works is continuing upgrades to the $52.4 million, I-215 Airport Connector project, which began in August 2015. Phase 2 of the project, currently underway, includes a direct flyover structure consisting of a nine-span stell bridge 1,923 feet long. The eatbound I-215 off ramp to Warm Springs Road, which has been closed since January, is scheduled to re-open in June with a new, wider configuration. Phase 2 of the massive project is yet to be scheduled.
NDOT and the RTC of Southern Nevada are working together to develop the first 15 miles of Interstate 11, a $318-million project to construct a new freeway around the southern and eastern perimeter of Boulder City. I-11 will eventually link Las Vegas with Phoenix, and the ultimate goal is to have an uninterrupted interstate link between Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.
Tina Quigley, general manager of the RTC, said $65 million of the funding will come from fuel tax revenue, $250 million from federal grants, and the rest from state highway funds. “This project would not have moved forward without fuel tax indexing,” she said. “Passage of the ballot question was the catalyst to get the flywheel turning.”
Quigley estimated that work on I-11 provides about 4,000 jobs, including construction workers, suppliers for the project and the multiplier effect of extra payroll dollars in the Nevada economy.
NDOT is roughly 60 percent complete with the $83-million first phase, which calls for a 2.5-mile-long, four-lane concrete interstate freeway between Silverline Road and Foothill Drive. The project entails building a full diamond interchange at Railroad Pass, a pedestrian bridge connecting the River Mountains Loop and Henderson trail systems and a railroad bridge to reconnect the tracks previously severed by U.S. Highway 93. Completion is scheduled for December 2017. RTC oversees Phase 2 of the I-11 project, which will carry the freeway 12.5 miles from U.S. 95 to U.S. 93 near Hoover Dam. The $235 million Phase 2 consists mostly of asphalt paving and includes 11 bridges. Both phases of the project should be completed by next spring.
NDOT is also in the final phase of widening State Route 160 from Pahrump to Las Vegas, making the entire highway four lanes wide. The $60 million project is scheduled for completion sometime next year.
In February, NDOT reached 50 percent completion on construction of the USA Parkway extension connecting Interstate 80 and U.S. 50 in Storey and Lyon counties. The USA Parkway was originally constructed as a privately built, six-mile-long road connecting I-80 to the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center east of Sparks. The project will extend the Parkway by more than 12 miles to U.S. 50 near Silver Springs, creating an 18-mile-long, four-lane state roadway predicted to reduce driving times by as much as 38 percent for travelers between U.S. 50 and I-80. The $75.9 million project is scheduled to finish in late 2017.
With money from federal transportation funds, the state highway fund and Carson City, the Carson City Freeway project will eventually provide an interstate bypass alternative to help relieve traffic congestion in downtown Carson City. Phase 1 widened northbound U.S. 395 to add a truck-climbing lane on the hill coming out of Carson City to the East Lake Boulevard interchange. The $42 million Phase 2B-3 project will pave and open the last four miles of the freeway between Fairview Drive and the Spooner/U.S. 50 junction in south Carson City. The final segment of the freeway is expected to open for traffic in late summer 2017.
Other NDOT projects in Northern Nevada include the final phase of a U.S. 50 widening project in Lyon County, planned for completion in 2018, and construction of a $35-million shared-use path linking Incline Village to Sand Harbor along the shore of Lake Tahoe.
Washoe County RTC’s SouthEast Connector project in Reno includes construction of a new 5.5-mile arterial road, seven bridges, two signalized intersections and a multi-use path for recreational users. RTC’s Gibson said the new roadway, with three lanes in each direction, will provide a more efficient and safe alternative for commuters traveling between south Reno and east Reno/Sparks. Phase 1 was completed in 2014, and work on Phase 2 is now 50 percent complete.
“Reliable water infrastructure is a vital component of economic prosperity,” said John Entsminger, General Manager for the Las Vegas Valley Water District and Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA). “We can’t risk losing access to 90 percent of the water supply for two million residents and 40 million annual visitors.”
In recent years, water levels in Lake Mead have dropped dangerously low due to a continued drought in the West. SNWA completed a massive “drinking straw” project in 2015 called Intake No. 3, which is capable of drawing water even if the lake elevation drops to 1,000 feet above sea level. Development of a new $650 million pumping station began in mid-2015 and is scheduled for completion in 2020. Together with Intake No. 3, the low lake-level pumping station will allow SNWA to pump water from Lake Mead to water treatment facilities from an elevation as low as 875 feet above sea level.
The Las Vegas Valley Water District maintains 6,500 miles of pipeline, 70 reservoirs, and more than 50 pumping stations in Southern Nevada. A water rate increase in 2016, which costs the average residential customer about 75 cents a month, provides funding for the Water District to invest in the infrastructure to maintain this vital system. Entsminger said they are planning about $600 million in capital improvements over the next 10 years, adding. “Advanced planning tools allow us to systematically implement water system repairs, replacements or upgrades in a safe and cost-effective manner before these critical components reach the end of their service life and cause emergency situations for our customers.”
Keeping the Lights On
Now that residential construction is rebounding, NV Energy is starting to get inquiries from developers of master-planned communities about transmission lines and power distribution for their projects, according to Mary Simmons, vice president of business development and community strategy for NV Energy.
On the commercial side, Simmons noted, “There is renewed interest in the Apex and west Henderson areas of Southern Nevada, as well as the area around the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center in Northern Nevada. Although we’re not involved in actual construction yet, we want to make sure [developers] have the infrastructure they need to get their businesses up and running when the time comes.”
NV Energy, which serves 95 percent of the Nevada population, was working on projects to improve service and reliability even during the recession. One project undertaken during the downturn included a new substation and improved transmission lines to serve the largely agricultural communities of Yerington and Smith Valley, and they recently rebuilt the power lines from Carson Valley to the Heavenly Valley Ski Resort at Lake Tahoe.
NV Energy completed a major infrastructure project in 2013 called the One Nevada Transmission Line. The 235-mile line between Ely and Las Vegas connects the northern service area previously owned by Sierra Pacific with the southern service area from Nevada Power. The two entities merged in 1999 to form NV Energy, and both ends of the state can now share power resources, depending on where demand is greatest.
Help from the Feds?
President Trump is proposing a $1-trillion program to rebuild America’s roads, bridges, railways and airports, rolling back burdensome regulation and looking for creative funding sources.
Quigley said, “The Trump administration takes transportation infrastructure very seriously and wants to explore opportunities for the public and private sectors to work together to accelerate some of these major projects.”
Smith added, “We feel things could really get going in a year’s time. If they pass the infrastructure package, we’ll get our fair share of the work, and you’ll see things humming around here.”