The future of Nevada’s business success could hinge on transportation infrastructure. According to multiple Nevada transportation officials, success with Nevada’s transportation likewise relies partially on the support of the Nevada business and real estate communities.
“Communication with developers is critical,” said Rudy Malfabon, Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) director. “We need to understand what’s coming down the line.”
NDOT, along with regional transit authorities, plan at least 20 years in the future with the base needs of Nevada’s transportation infrastructure. Those plans, however, do remain fluid. As an example, Malfabon referenced the talk of high rises a decade ago and how real estate plans shifted.
While each organization works with planning departments, Malfabon said coordinating efforts with businesses could be better and they are willing to sign confidentiality agreements to ensure better community transit when developments begin.
“We hate to be behind the curve when announcements are made and there’s a public expectation to have the infrastructure in place,” he said. “We have 20 years planned out, but it’s very flexible and plans can be accelerated and moved around when the budget is available.”
Planning Around Business
There’s a department within the Regional Transit Commission of Southern Nevada (Southern Nevada RTC) dedicated to looking at how communities in Southern Nevada are developing and what their needs might be in the future.
“We’re constantly looking at new developments and talking with developers, while monitoring existing routes and riderships,” said Tina Quigley, general manager for Southern Nevada RTC.
Quigley said peer cities like Phoenix, Denver, Salt Lake City and San Diego have provided guidance when it comes to transportation and economic development. Her favorite project to highlight is the first 20 miles of light rail in Phoenix, a $1.4 billion investment expected to create $3 billion in economic activity. Instead, the project generated $8.9 billion in its first 10 years.
For something similar in Southern Nevada, collaboration between the public and private sector would need to happen.
“There is very much a nexus between investment in high density transit and economic development,” she said. “As a transit operator, we’ll look at planned development and density.”
With the 2016 vote to tie motor tax to inflation, along with the fuel and sales taxes, roadway funding aligns with planned improvements.
Transit, however, is a different story, according to Quigley, as new requests, “far outweigh the resources we have.”
At the state level, funding is largely tied to federal funds in terms of interstate routes. Malfabon said for large-scale projects, bonds can be issued.
“We are thoughtful not to overdo bonding,” he said. “We take care not to be in a huge amount of debt so fuel tax revenues can go toward new projects, not just paying off bond debt.”
Quigley indicated that while the past six years have included a 30 percent expansion of route in Southern Nevada, revenues and ridership are dropping.
To help combat the drops, Quigley said the RTC is working to better understand the needs of the transit system and working with jurisdictions where there is increased residential areas. The organization is also working to partner with planned events, such as Vegas Golden Knights, for game day solutions.
“They help fund [the Golden Knights Express bus], but in doing so, we give an alternative to fans to get congestion off the road,” she said. “Those new approaches to public-private partnerships are new. In the past, we weren’t focused on them.”
With the growth in the technology, manufacturing and warehousing industries in Reno, the focus on transportation is turning more toward being a partner in building a quality of life, according to Lee Gibson, executive director at Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County (RTC Washoe).
Examples he pointed to were developers building trails and bike lanes in master planned communities eventually tied together with RTC Washoe projects, ensuring multi-modal transportation possibilities.
“These industries are bringing higher wage jobs,” Gibson said. “What we find with these groups is they are wanting a transportation system that supports their interests. Our partnership in the framework of the community is to provide a good solid connectivity from a regional to neighborhood scale.”
Las Vegas has seen an exponential growth in city size, both in population and land area, the past several decades and Quigley said the RTC recognizes the need for evolution in how transportation and transit is handled in regards to real estate and business.
“Las Vegas is at a point in its growth and transit maturity; we will start to partner more with the community in transit-oriented development,” she said. “We’re in a learning mode and we recognize that.”
The I-11 Interstate project is far from complete, but the initial phases of the north-south connector between Phoenix and Las Vegas is a promising development for Nevada.
With 34,000 vehicles moving through the Boulder City area daily, being able to move a portion of the traffic outside the city on the first phase of I-11 is critical, according to Quigley.
“Overall it’s about efficiency, safety and moving freight,” she said. “It’s significant for the entire intermountain west.”
Malfabon said he believes Nevada is on a good pace with the I-11 project and Arizona is working on its pieces of the project as well. He believes the interstate will be a significant freight corridor and studies for the best route north of Las Vegas are currently underway.
Phoenix and Las Vegas metropolitan areas are the two largest not connected by an interstate. Once I-11 is completed, this will no longer be true. The interstate could also extend northward and enhance Nevada’s position as a logistics hub.
Nevada Trucking Association CEO Paul Enos said having a major north-south interstate in Nevada would help create a more fluid transportation map, beyond Reno’s relationship with the Bay Area and Las Vegas’ connection to Los Angeles. A fully north-south I-11 could open up Nevada’s access to Seattle, Portland, Canada and Mexico. Enos mentioned Salt Lake City’s position as a regional transit hub with great directional accessibility and possibility for Nevada’s economy.
“We really don’t have a good north-to-south connection,” Enos said. “It could really open up movement and put Nevada in a place to become a logistics hub when you look at the manufacturing we have coming up at the Reno Tahoe Industrial Park. Having [I-11] connection would definitely be beneficial to the state.”
Other Major Projects
In Las Vegas, NDOT is ready to create a flyover connection between I-15 North and Clark County 215, as well as 215 and I-515 in Henderson.
Malfabon said the Tropicana Avenue and I-15 Interchange is also in need of reconstruction to coincide with the widening of I-15 stretch to, “better serve the resort corridor.”
In the Reno area, Malfabon said a project is set to be awarded in widening US 50 to the Reno Tahoe Industrial Center. Also subject to legislative process will be a $150 million project for a quadrant of the Reno Spaghetti Bowl.
Gibson said RTC Washoe is looking at more inter-county connections, such as improvements to I-80 into Storey County.
Keeping up with Nevada’s population growth has provided its own challenges, but NDOT is regularly studying the needs for added capacity throughout the state.
“People are moving here for high-tech employment and the economic diversification is showing that growth with more people driving, needed to commute to work and school,” Malfabon said. “We do a good job working collaboratively, especially the RTCs, to anticipate what’s needed.
“We don’t have the money to do everything at once, but we put heads together and do the analysis and figure out the best approach.”
In terms of road construction, Nevada has one of the best pavement education programs in the world at University of Nevada – Reno. The program recently received a five-year, $3 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for a national program for guidance in pavement engineering, construction and maintenance.
“This grant solidifies our position as the best pavement engineering science program in the U.S. and the world,” said Peter Sebaaly, the school’s pavement engineering and science program director. “Having an excellent pavement engineering and science program at UNR with the great collaborative relationship with Nevada DOT and local governments is a win-win situation for all.”
Sebaaly said, with an average cost of $1 million a mile, costs for pavement are prohibitive and better management of pavement is imperative to ensure longevity, cutting down on construction and replacement costs and limiting traffic congestion.
“Nevada is one of the states that has large road networks with relatively small population,” he said. “Therefore, we need to be smart and make our limited funds go a long way.”
Malfabon said he keeps tabs with national and international associations regarding the rapid change of transportation technology.
The best current use of technology in transit has been deploying additional officers where NDOT anticipates added crashes and congestion, Malfabon said.
“It’s rapidly changing but it offers opportunities to improve efficiencies. We do believe it can really be a game-changer,” he said. “It’s hard to anticipate and predict, and it’s like playing the stock market. We do the best with the information we have.”
Technology is also being deployed in Reno to help monitor and manage traffic signals. Washoe would like to use autonomy in the bus system and Gibson said the hurdles with technology, especially autonomous vehicles, center on safety.
In the future, as urban areas continue to expand, more transit-oriented development could emerge, Gibson indicated, adding he’s long heard about the death of the suburbs, and it has yet to come.
“Transit oriented development is there and will have a bigger role,” he said. “Real estate needs drive and tech supports urban areas, but families will still want single-family homes with yards. “Something I will say, tech is not the answer to everything.”
With Tesla releasing an electric semi-truck, Enos said an issue to solve will be how to have them contribute to the state’s roads. The Nevada Trucking Association is a proponent of fuel taxes as the most efficient form to fund infrastructure. For electric trucks, to replace the revenue stream might mean flat registration fees or fees based on hours of operation related to gas equivalencies.
Technological advances in mobility likely plays a part in the ridership and revenue drops for the Southern Nevada RTC, but Quigley said despite the challenge, it excites her.
“Things are changing so fast, we’re always talking about huge disruption and how the industry needs to, and will, shift,” she said. “I’m excited about the new mobility options to get from point A to B, but it means a philosophical shift and one we need to be monitoring and agile about in approaching.
“It’s exciting, but nerve racking because you don’t want to make a bad decision.”
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