Project Neon brightens up


The Interstate 15 corridor between the Spaghetti Bowl and Sahara Avenue is the undisputed champion of traffic gridlock. It handles a whopping 250,000 vehicles per day, the busiest stretch of freeway in Nevada. The Nevada Department of Transportation wants to do something about the constant traffic jams, frequent wrecks and inefficient interchanges. Project Neon aims to address those issues, as well as future traffic growth.

The problem: It would take 20 years to get it all done, primarily because the state doesn’t have the required $1 billion. The department has been hit by lower-than-expected fuel tax revenues because more and more fuel-efficient vehicles are taking the road. The Legislature has put a fuel tax increase proposal on the 2016 ballot to address that shortfall.

But, as reported Monday by the Review-Journal’s Richard Lake, there is a way to get much of Project Neon done faster — a lot faster. There is a strong chance NDOT will consummate a public-private partnership with a contractor by the end of 2014, with construction starting in 2015 and three of Project Neon’s five phases completed by 2018.

Such a move would turn the slogging project into one of those catchy AT&T commercials, in which the adult tosses a softball question to a group of children at a kid-size table. “Now, what’s better: Being stuck in traffic until 2033, or until 2018?” Thankfully, public officials appear to have come up with the same answer those kids would have arrived at.

As easy as that answer might seem, NDOT still should be lauded for seeking an innovative way to get this desperately needed project on the fast track.

The plan allows the state to pay the private entity over the next 35 years — project manager Cole Mortensen told Mr. Lake it’s almost like a mortgage — while getting work started and finished much faster. The private entity is responsible for the financing itself, which frees up current money for the state to devote to other projects. And as Mr. Lake reported, having a private partner locks in the cost of the project, shifting much of the risk to the private entity instead of the taxpayer. If the work doesn’t get done, the contractor doesn’t get paid. It also helps with maintenance costs, because that aspect is part of the budget. Mr. Mortensen also noted that he expects federal funds to cover much of the project.

It’s a win for commuters, taxpayers and the state, to be sure. But government at all levels — federal, state and local — shouldn’t stop there. These types of money- and time-saving partnerships could be pursued for a variety of public projects.

 

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