NEVADAN AT WORK: Professor explains Southwestern perspectives to policymakers

Robert Lang still describes himself as a newcomer to Las Vegas. But his passion for the Mountain West region, especially Southern Nevada, began more than 20 years ago when he was a Rutgers University graduate student.

Lang, 52, credits his mentor at Rutgers -- Frank Popper, a professor with the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Popper told him that one of the better niches in the field of urban affairs was understanding Western cities and how misunderstood they were.

"Inside that Washington beltway think-tank discussion, there is not a lot of focus on these cites," said Lang, who added that public policy is not created with Las Vegas or Phoenix in mind.

He said in Washington there is not a lot of understanding about cities that run from Orlando, Fla., to Phoenix and Las Vegas.

"Because they don't fit into a kind of West Coast knowledge of cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco," he said. "I thought these cities were more interesting because they were growing."

Today, Lang a University of Nevada, Las Vegas sociology professor, is better known as the director of Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between the university and the Brookings Institution in Washington.

He said the think tank aims to close the gap between the information known about the Mountain West region and the policy discussion in Washington. Lang said the aim is to obtain more resources to tackle the Mountain West region's problems.

He is also director of the Lincy Institute at UNLV, which conducts and supports research aimed at improving health care, education and social services in Nevada.

Question: How does someone from Brooklyn, N.Y., become a student of the Southwest?

Answer: This is really more a reflection of graduate school and Washington. In Washington, there is not a lot of knowledge about cites that run from basically Orlando, Fla., to Phoenix and Las Vegas, because they don't fit into a ... West Coast knowledge of cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco and the Northeast and Midwest, which is much of what the federal government focuses on by way of remedying problems. I also thought these were more interesting (cities) because they were growing. Inside that Washington beltway think-tank discussion, there is not a lot of focus on these cities.

Question: What are the Mountain West region's boundaries?

Answer: As far as trade and people are concerned the region is Phoenix, Tucson (Ariz.), Las Vegas and Southern California. The reason is ... air traffic. This is something you can demonstrate in terms of the way goods flow or people move about. So the largest share of flights out of Sky Harbor (in Phoenix) and Las Vegas are to Southern California, and to one another. So these cities are connected except we don't have a direct interstate to Phoenix.

Question: Why isn't there an interstate connecting Las Vegas with Phoenix?

Answer: The reason it didn't happen is (that) there was a very strict formula on building the interstate. It was kind of a U.S. planning model that you should try to reach every metropolitan area with at least 50,000 residents. It was based on the 1950 census. So Phoenix was big enough. Las Vegas was just below the threshold. (The Las Vegas population) would be there a decade later. That's the sad part about it.

Question: What does an urban affairs expert do?

Answer: I study the growth, the patterns of growth, the physical form and economics of large metropolitan areas. Las Vegas and similar areas around the country. Typically, top 50 markets are my specialty.

Question: What do you hope to achieve through your work?

Answer: It's very specific policy change. It's what are the physical realignments in terms of public infrastructure and investment necessary to increase economic development. For example, what it would mean to have Las Vegas connected via an interstate to Phoenix. What is the direct benefit to this region? We got an enhanced airport; we are about to add a lot more cargo. Cargo hates it when they get on a two-lane highway once you've done all this costly transport by air, which is high cost per mile travel but quick.

Question: Any advantages?

Answer: One of the advantages of this region is we already have a lot of trade that's born of tourism, so cargo can piggyback upon tourism. That's why we have an airport that matches Houston's airport. Houston is a region of 5 million people; we are a region of 2 million.

Question: How do we expand our economy?

Answer: In terms of our economy, the driver will always be gaming. We just need to get some other share of regional growth other than construction.

Question: Do we have the infrastructure to support that growth?

Answer: Yes. I'll give you a city that never built infrastructure, Tucson. There is no additional beltway there. We've built a beltway, main arterials that radiate out from the core. You know Charlotte (N.C.) is about our size and we have the same lane miles. We are a very densely built region.

Question: If you look at what we are going through, is the region too big? Should we consider resizing the city and the region as Detroit and Cleveland have done?

Answer: I don't think we are Detroit or Cleveland. We are more like where cites were at the end of the savings and loan crisis in the early 1990s. You had overbuilt three main cites in the U.S., they were Dallas, Denver and Phoenix. They were the three most impacted cities. At first when you go into a recession, the overhanging real estate drags your economy down with it. But, when the U.S. economy recovers as a whole, you're ... a bargain. ... You got bailed out and you really don't have the same bottom line as investors come in and pay for products at pennies on a dollar. I'll give you an example. Plano, Texas, the Legacy (master-planned business park) project in the early 1990s. Wiped out, even dinged Ross Perot. Yet once the bank is in receivership, it's basically free to the region. So they go after J.C. Penney from New York and say, "How about a dollar a square foot? It's on the house." So it depends on where you are in the cycle and the depth of the recession.

Question: Is that healthy?

Answer: It is when you clear the market. It's not healthy for the person to whose bottom line was tied to the price of that house being high. But you look at it as a driver of regional economics. For example, what if now we went for Internet gaming and got it. We pick up thousands of (information technology) jobs. One of the attractors (for bringing these jobs) is (the ability to) cash out (of) a house (somewhere else) and buy a place here. These are well-paying jobs that could help stabilize our housing market.

Question: Have we become an exporter of gaming technology?

Answer: Yes. The folks that want to do business want to come here because of our global brand. If you went to the city of Houston and said to them right now, "How much energy do you produce?" they would laugh at you. It's not how much we produce, it's how much we discover, how much we finance, how much we transport. ... We are not Atlantic City. You know what Atlantic City gets from Singapore? Nothing. These other gaming cities are branches of our firms.

Question: What problems are harming the Las Vegas region?

Answer: We have a very poor link to Southern California ... (because) Indian gaming has been great at constraining the growth of Interstate 15. The truckers are with us. They would like a bigger freeway because they are trying to get everything out of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through the Coachella and El Cajón passes. Everything stacks up. If there ever were a demand for a large six- to eight-lane freeways like you find in the Northeast, it is (for) Interstate 15. But the politics in California being what they are won't allow it.

Question: Describe the Brookings Institution?

Answer: Brookings is a nonprofit think tank in Washington that works on public policy questions from everything from foreign policy to economic and social welfare and public housing. We were founded in 1916 and continue to survive on donations and grants.

Question: Do you still have a position with Brookings?

Answer: Yes. I'm a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. It means I work on projects and write reports for them. I've also published several books and issue papers over the years. (Lang's book - Boomburbs: the Rise of America's Accidental Cities was published by Brookings Press in 2007.)

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at or 702-477-3893.