Highway spending up in air

CARSON CITY -- With just 15 days remaining in the legislative session, two legislative leaders say they haven't seen a proposal to address the state's highway construction shortfall that can win support from both the Legislature and Gov. Jim Gibbons.

"There are a lot of possibilities, but nothing has jelled," said state Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas. "Time is ticking away."

Unless something unexpected happens, Titus doubts the Legislature will do anything to address the $3.8 billion highway construction funding shortfall. The money is needed for 10 massive road projects, most of them in Clark County.

Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas, said: "Certain groups are working on it, but I tend to agree with Senator Titus."

Voters don't appear to be pushing lawmakers to reach a resolution.

Mabey said he had not received a single message from constituents asking him to take action this session on the road problem.

Titus said she has received only a few. "We haven't been getting the e-mail on this like we did two sessions ago about funding education," she said.

A Review-Journal poll conducted this month found that only 9 percent of 625 registered voters statewide viewed road congestion as the most important issue before the 2007 Legislature.

But Transportation Committee heads continued last week to insist the Legislature must do something this session on the funding shortfall.

"If we do nothing and end up in gridlock, you will be screaming. I will be screaming," said state Senate Transportation Chairman Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas.

Nolan, however, acknowledged the highway funding issue has temporarily been placed on the back burner while legislative leaders look at the financial hit the state could take from giving tax breaks in 2005 to companies who use energy efficient or "green" construction materials.

Assembly Transportation Chairman Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, said: "We can't go home without doing anything."

What is being discussed about highway construction behind closed doors includes:

• Securing a new list of road project priorities from the Nevada Department of Transportation.

Legislators want a cost-benefit analysis that determines which of the 10 super highways projects under consideration should be constructed first and how much money would be needed this session for construction.

The widening of Interstate 15 through Las Vegas and south to Primm at a potential cost of $2 billion likely would top the list.

• Getting the business community, rental car businesses, gaming industry and trucking industry to agree on some tax or revenue increases they could support. Through this strategy, legislators hope to address Gibbons' pledge to veto any legislation increasing taxes or fees.

Brent Boynton, Gibbons' communications director, has said the governor will back fee increases, not tax increases, that have the approval of the affected industry.

• Expanding the automobile depreciation timetable. Under the current depreciation allowance, the amount motorists now pay on the value of their cars is depreciated over 10 years. Lengthening that timetable could raise money for road construction.

A transportation task force last year estimated such a move could raise $558 million over eight years.

The question is whether Gibbons would view it as a tax increase and veto it.

"Some say it is a tax; others say it isn't," Mabey said. "It slows the depreciation rate. The hope is the governor can support it."

What is not on the negotiation table, at least for now, is the proposal by Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, to let voters decide what roads they want to build and how they plan to pay for them.

Gibbons' proposal to take room taxes from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and use the money for roads also has gone nowhere. Legislation to implement it has not even been introduced.