Nevada’s transportation industry has come a long way in the past several years. However, industry leaders are still challenged with meeting the needs of increased populations and moving people and products more efficiently. Recently, executives representing transportation in Nevada met at the Las Vegas offices of City National Bank to discuss industry challenges.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. The magazine’s monthly roundtables bring together industry leaders to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
What issues does this industry face?
Mike Janssen: The biggest challenge we have is labor related. We’re seeing a huge check out of our senior leadership team where generational Baby Boomers are all [retiring] and we’re having to bring up our newest leaders to take on those roles. Then secondly, we are relying on the same pool of engineers and contractors [as everyone else]. We are doing a lot of work and there’s only so much capacity.
Edward McGuire: I think our biggest challenge is our love of the automobile. We talk about options but, at the end of the day, the average constituent wants more lanes and wider roads and big parking lots. One of my favorite people in the world says, “Until there’s a parking lot shortage, you’re not going to get people out of their car.” That’s a tough one for us. The average voter/taxpayer/customer for me just wants more lane miles and sometimes selling those options is hard.
Amy Cummings: I would have two on that list, the first being pedestrian safety and overall traffic safety. It’s such a challenge because it’s not just the infrastructure side, it’s also the behavior side, with people looking up and paying attention and looking out for each other. We’ve had a 20 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities over the last year and we’ve had 25 school kids hit going to or from school. It’s just not acceptable. We’re doing our part working to improve crosswalks and sidewalks and traffic calming measures, but people also have to look away from their phones and pay attention to what they’re doing. Getting that message out is a challenge for us. We’re working with our partners and with NDOT and others to do that. The other is funding for public transportation. We have huge demand, we know that if we can provide more service, more people would take transit and not have to rely on their cars.
Paul Enos: We’re living in an era of disruption. We are living in an era where we have automated technologies coming on board. Some of that disruption is for the positive and some has some negative connotations. When you look at our industry, we’ve got challenges.
How are new technologies affecting transportation?
MJ Maynard: We received a grant from the US Department of Transportation for a project we’re calling GoMed. We’ve identified an area in downtown Las Vegas, our Bonneville Transit Center, that is going to run a circulator through the Las Vegas Medical District that includes the new medical school. The idea is to introduce autonomous technology to folks that would never have a chance to see it and it’s going to be a circulator route.
Janssen: It’s building on the success of the first one that we tested on Fremont Street. That was quite an experience, going through all the hoops to try to get it in place, but what it showed us was, there are a lot of folks that are afraid to get into a vehicle that is driverless. I think it was a lot of generational stuff. Those are some things we’ve got to work through.
Dawn Gibbons: With autonomous vehicles (AV) there’s another problem because you’re going to have these vehicles out on the roads but where are we going to put them? What about employment? The people that are driving for Lyft and Uber, they’re going to probably be out of jobs because Uber and Lyft are going to be autonomous in the near future.
Scott Whittemore: When you think AVs, I think some of us tend to think Jetsons, it’s the future, but if you go down to the Las Vegas Strip right now, there’s a company called Aptiv that’s running under the Lyft model, they’ve done in excess of 80,000 commercial rides. Autonomous vehicles change this conversation significantly and I don’t think it’s as far [into the future] as people assume. Especially given that commercial applications are happening now.
Enos: We have varying degrees of autonomy that’s built into our vehicles today. A truck equipped with [a semi-autonomous] system looks out ahead, it will brake before the driver has a chance to react. It’s been tremendous for safety. We have greatly reduced rear end crashes between cars and trucks because of that kind of technology.
Kristina Swallow: While there’s safety benefits that we’re already seeing, and will continue to see, if we don’t figure out the policies around them, it could actually increase congestion. We have to be engaged in how they roll out and be talking about how we move people most efficiently and effectively.
What new transportation projects are on the horizon?
Tina Quigley: You’ve heard a train is coming again and again. This is the first time that we have an investor who is committed to building this out. They see this as a market that is desirable. The project is 170 miles from Las Vegas into San Bernardino County, actually Victorville. Only 30 miles of it is in the state of Nevada, the rest of it is in California. It’s a $5 billion project. It’s slated to break ground by the end of this year with completion by the end of 2023. We’re talking about a city pair where we have got a strong connection. There’s a lot of tourists who are coming here and 26 percent at any given time of our visitors here have come from southern California.
Gibbons: That’s definitely going to help the congestion problem.
Swallow: [In regards to Interstate 11], we’ve just really started the NEPA (National Environmental Protection Act) process to get through the Las Vegas Valley. Once we get through that, which is going to be some time, then we’ll start talking about how to go further north. [It takes] years to complete projects. We’re bidding the final phase of the Centennial Bowl later this spring. That final phase will be going under construction later this year. We’re excited about it and it’ll take a couple of years to finish it. The I15/215 in the northeast Valley just bid, it’s going under construction in [about] two years. On the other hand, we’ve been talking about Tropicana for a couple of years, when the Raider’s first came that was already in conversation. We are finally getting our record of decision from NEPA in the next month or so and then we can start with the right of way acquisition. We’re still looking at three to four years before we’re complete. These things take time, but we make sure going in that we are aware of all of the impacts and risks to the project. It’s good that it takes time sometimes, although we need the Tropicana project completed yesterday.
Is there a solution for congestion?
Whittemore: If you go south to north, you have the Raider’s, Resort’s World, the Drew and Circa, this is all great news. It’s billion of dollars worth of construction and jobs here, but it leads right into congestion and the issue of the resort corridor. Every single tourist who is sitting in a taxi, sitting in a TNC (transportation network company, ie. Uber and Lyft) or waiting because the bus can’t move, it affects all of us. What is the proper mix? For decades, the reason you had a highly regulated commercial market was to prevent over-saturation. You had a fixed number of medallions and fixed fares. That’s all changed with the advent of TNCs.
Enos: Coming from Reno, I would have had to rent a car today because there is no way I could get a taxi to take me from the airport and back here. It’s tremendously better today than it ever has been, thanks to Uber and Lyft.
Whittemore: I’ve never been anti Uber and Lyft, I don’t think people should be. The discussion is about the proper mix.
Curtis Myles: One of the things that gets overlooked in all of these conversations is those systems have induced trips, they haven’t replaced trips. Induced trips means congestion. If they continue to induce trips, where is that upper limit for demand for trips, and do you have the capacity to meet it? I don’t think that’s even being discussed, let alone addressed. The challenge that we’re going to have is that, not only are we falling behind in meeting the congestion needs of today’s transportation mode mix, we have no way of even approaching what it could be if we start approaching that upper limit. We don’t know what that upper limit is.
Enos: When you look at 2015 to 2016, [congestion] costs the trucking industry, nationwide, $74.5 billion. That’s equivalent to about 400,000 truckers sitting idle for a year. In Nevada, because we had fuel tax indexing and we’ve made investments in roads and infrastructure, we’ve seen a decrease in congestion to our industry of 11.2 percent. That saved our industry, here in the Silver State, $32.5 million. For a small industry, that’s not chump change. Nevada, for all of the issues that we have with congestion, is actually doing a pretty good job.
Myles: But you’re only doing a good job where that is concerned. I don’t think there’s anybody that works for any public works entity in this room that is going to say road congestion in our most congested corridor has improved, or stayed neutral.
Swallow: We can’t solve congestion, what we can solve is travel time and reliability. When you get up and decide to go to work, you know every time you go to work it’s going to take you 25 minutes. Maybe five years ago it took you 22 minutes, but you know every time you go today it’s going to take you 25. It’s not going to take you two hours tomorrow and 30 minutes today. We want it to consistently be the same amount of time and that’s what’s critical when you’re planning your day. If you don’t know how long your commute is going to take, you have to plan for that longer commute. We’re not going to build our way out. Where do we go with I15, what do we take out on either side of the road to widen that? We have to figure out how to get the people through as smoothly and reliably as possible.
How does transportation infrastructure improve the community?
Cummings: It’s worth talking about some of the other benefits transportation infrastructure improvements can have beyond just congestion relief. We’ve already touched on safety but there’s also walkability, accessibility, making sure people can get to all the great restaurants and stores and creating those vibrant public spaces that people want to go to and not just drive through. That’s what some of the RTC projects in Washoe County are focusing on right now with a BRT (bus rapid transit) extension on Virginia Street to make sure people have alternatives to driving so they’ll have great transit service every 10 minutes to get from UNR to downtown, midtown and the convention center. Students can ride free which is something we’ve instituted just in the last year. Student and faculty ridership is up dramatically. People are absolutely taking advantage of it and we’re taking what were 18 inch sidewalks and turning them into 10 foot wide sidewalks. We’re actually reducing auto capacity.
Myles: One thing we’ve never done well is to strike the right balance between the qualitative impacts and the quantitative impacts of increasing or decreasing service. We’ve either focused on the quality at the expensive of the quantitative improvements or focused on the quantitative improvements and ignored the quality. We usually focus on one of those two aspects of transportation.
How is this industry funded?
Quigley: Roads are paid for by the gas tax, it’s not a sustainable source of funding for a couple reasons. One reason is the efficiencies that are coming with new model cars. On some of these newer models now you can get 40 miles to a gallon pretty consistently. Nobody is buying as much fuel anymore but that’s how we pay for roads. The other is just the electrification of vehicles. I drive an electric vehicle and I love it but every time I drive I’m not paying for the roads that everybody else is paying for.
Maynard: We’re the public transit provider and we have a real funding challenge, in a city that continues to be ranked as one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. There are 50,000 people that move here, every single year. Our investment in transit per capita is at 1999 levels. Today we’re providing 20 percent less service than we did when we were at our peak in 1999. We also have to remain relevant to our customers because public transit is not for everyone.
Swallow: Electric vehicles are an interesting challenge. Right now, they’re not as much of a threat as the overall CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) increase. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy is how many miles we get per gallon. The fact that the CAFE has been increasing so significantly [is a challenge]. In 2016 cars got, roughly, 25 miles to the gallon; now we’re looking at 40. That’s the really big threat today. Electric vehicles are the threat long term but they’re not being adopted at the rate that we expected. As they become more affordable, they will be, but right now, we’re really threatened with just the increase in fuel economy of all the cars.
Quigley: Federal funding for these different sources of transit and transportation are also in different pots and they almost compete against each other sometimes. There’s no motive for any of us in the transportation industry to look at it synergistically from an ecosystem perspective. We’re almost encouraged, by existing funding pots, to think of them very separate. Whether it’s freight, transit or roads, we’re not funded or rewarded for being an ecosystem.
Swallow: I will say that, in this conversation around funding solutions, you’re not going to meet Nevada’s needs if you only look at roads.
Do people understand how roads are funded?
Quigley: Roads are considered free. I think that’s one of the basic problems that we’ve got.
Maynard: It depends. When I was in the private sector I certainly didn’t understand transportation. You think, if you need money, raise money, sell more widgets to fill the funding gap. But, this is an industry that, you can either call it highly subsidized or a community investment, but it starts out in the red. When you talk to folks in the community and you hear, “Just raise your fares [to meet funding challenges],” that’s sticky on so many levels. Even if you raise fares, if you really wanted to pay for the price of that trip, you’d have to charge folks about $3 each way on a fixed route, minimum.
Myles: Transportation has never been a commodity that demands a price that covers the cost provided.
Maynard: When you talk about the quality, the will is there. We would love to be able to provide a greater experience for our customers, but we are handcuffed by the amount of funding that we have to meet the needs of 2.2 million folks here in Clark County.
Swallow: We’re also not fully funding the roadways. If they raise transit to cost what it actually costs, people say that costs too much, that’s more than driving. The reality is, we’re not charging enough to drive either. We’re subsidizing all of those costs in lots of different ways but nobody really realizes that, we don’t talk about it. It is, perhaps, a community service, but how do we figure out how to fund it?
Enos: There’s other benefits. When you look at our economy, roads are absolutely essential to making our economy go. You could say roads are a cost of all of the things we have in our economy that need people, freight, workers and customers. That is probably how we need to look at this. There’s all of these other benefits that we need to consider with roads that go along with it.
Swallow: If you’re doing your personal math, people say, well gas is only whatever it is, and it takes me a gallon [to get to where I want to go]. Even in our personal math we’re not talking about the fact that we have to insure the car, we bought that car, there’s wear and tear on it, I have to have a garage, a bigger house [and all those expenses].
Enos: But, I’ve got something that’s worth more than that to me, my mobility freedom.
McGuire: We love our freedom, we want to own our own automobile and we all want to have an empty lane when it’s our time to drive. That’s our challenge. We’re so independent. We live in a well-heeled community as far as things go, we own a lot of things, we have a lot of automobiles, we have a lot of free parking. We actually have very few paid parking [venues], it makes the newspaper when somebody charges to park. You just get in, you go wherever you want, you park, you can hang out for a while, you can buy some more stuff. Our success is our biggest challenge. We can’t put more lanes on I15 or make Eastern any wider. We’re going to try to improve, via technology. One of the things that comes out of semi-autonomous cars, is, if your car is talking to my car, it could look like Nascar on the way to work. We could be 6 feet apart going 70 miles an hour.