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The 'F-Word' Is Funding When Discussing Nevada Transportation

Courtesy Nevada Department of Transportation

From highway improvements to urban mass transit to a new underground Strip transportation system, Las Vegas is investing in ways to get people around.

Nevada prides itself on its commitment to  more electric cars and  fighting for improved vehicle efficiency.

But that green turn has left less green for highway projects because gas and other fuel tax revenues are failing to keep pace with infrastructure needs.

In response, the Legislature is considering  Assembly Bill 413, which would create an advisory group to provide guidance to lawmakers in 2023 on how to overhaul transportation funding.

The group would build on similar advisory work over the last two years that asked, “how we might evolve our system to ensure we have a long-term sustainable funding source,” said Kristina Swallow, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Over the next two years “what we’ll be looking at is how you fund the system,” she told State of Nevada. “Should we fund it the same whether you operate a gas-powered vehicle or an electric vehicle? Should there be enhancements because you operate something that has less of a climate impact? How much will it cost us to actually deliver a new revenue system?” 

She said projections show the current tax structure leaving her agency a $530 million annual shortfall, about equal to its capital budget.

“Every other word is the F-Word — funding” when it comes to discussing transportation, said M.J. Maynard, CEO of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. 

As evidence, she pointed to the decision to go with less-expensive bus rapid transit on Maryland Parkway instead of light rail, which was favored by the public and outside groups. Even President Joe Biden’s promised infrastructure dollars would not prompt a review of that decision, she said. 

“I think the bigger question for the RTC isn’t, ‘can you pivot to light rail?’ The bigger question for the RTC is, ‘how are you going to identify a sustainable funding solution for transportation that will allow us to maintain our current system but also to evolve?’ We need to evolve in terms of mobility in Southern Nevada,” she said.

Maynard said the RTC already doesn’t have the funding to maintain and operate its current system even with money from the federal government to cover losses felt during the pandemic.

Maynard did say it is possible voters will be asked in the next election cycle to provide additional funding that might allow the RTC “to pivot” away from bus rapid transit.

Swallow said the money question is moving NDOT to not look at ‘shovel ready’ projects, which are projects that are ready to go right now but may be nothing more than resurfacing a road, but rather ‘shovel worthy.’

“They may not be currently funded but additionally funding will help us deliver that project,” she explained, “Instead of saying we can deliver a new project that wasn’t previously planned for this year, it might take us two or three years to deliver it, but the investment in that project will have a much greater impact on the community.”

An innovative transportation system is ready to go at the Las Vegas Convention Center when large trade shows return.

Steve Hill, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention, said the “ Teslas in tunnels” transit system built by Elon Musk’s Boring Co., is ready to roll.

“The system is completely constructed; it has an operating permit,” he said, adding that attendees of ongoing smaller conventions are trying out the system.

The route under the convention center could be a cornerstone for a larger Vegas Loop that could link the Strip, Allegiant Stadium, and downtown Las Vegas, with eventual expansion to the airport and residential areas also proposed.

The Boring Co. is seeking land-use approvals for the system, which would be built and run without tax dollars, Hill said.

“This is going to be, from a public standpoint, a free system that will be made available up and down the resort corridor and ultimately to the airport,” he said.

Hill explained that for now the system uses small vehicles making it easier to get passengers on and off and allowing the cars to stop at individual stations that are like off ramps on a highway. There is however a possibility of including a tram that could carry a dozen people.

He said a tram could be used to bring large groups of people to one destination and the cars can be used to move smaller groups to several destinations.

“The business model on the Strip is probably as good for the Boring Co. as you’re going to find anywhere because we have demand for movement of people up and down the resort corridor 365 days a year, pretty much 24 hours a day,” he said.

The LVCVA recently purchased the Las Vegas Monorail, which was in bankruptcy. Hill said it was important to buy the monorail for two reasons. First, it moves millions of people a year, mostly around the convention center area.  And second, the monorail has a non-compete contract, meaning other transportation systems like the Boring Co., couldn’t operate near it.

The purchase allows alternative transportation companies and concepts to run through the resort corridor.

The goal, Hill said, is to eventually alleviate some of the congestion along the all-important Las Vegas Strip.

“I think ultimately taking traffic off Las Vegas Boulevard… maybe not fully taking traffic off the boulevard… would be a great thing, and if we could put that traffic underground and do it in a way that is more efficient, more effective, doesn’t have traffic lights, has the ability to have an express system underground the similar capacity that we have above ground would be a great thing for Nevada, frankly,” he said.

Kristina Swallow, director, Nevada Department of Transportation; M.J. Maynard, CEO, Regional Transportation Commission; Steve Hill, CEO/president, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority 

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With deep experience in journalism, politics, and the nonprofit sector, news producer Doug Puppel has built strong connections statewide that benefit the Nevada Public Radio audience.