Toll roads

Understanding that in this economic climate they aren't going to get billions of dollars in new funding for major construction projects, the folks at the Nevada Department of Transportation are again asking lawmakers to lift the state's ban on toll roads.

The proposal, introduced as Senate Bill 83, would seem to be a no-brainer. Repealing the ban could open the state to private infrastructure investment, leading to faster routes for those willing to pay a premium and removing those cars from the clogged "free" routes that Nevada motorists are accustomed to driving.

The Legislature, however, has not seen the wisdom of this idea, rejecting it in previous sessions largely because of suspicions that the private sector might neglect maintenance or charge exorbitant tolls to boost profits.

During a Tuesday hearing on SB83, Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, displayed partisan hostility to the idea, saying state partnerships with private companies would allow "Wall Street thugs" to gouge the public.

Earth to Sen. Schneider: "These facilities are a business," Deputy Transportation Director Scott Rawlins responded. "Those private investors want to make sure their investments are managed like a business. They want repeat customers."

Perhaps the state's most urgently needed highway, the $400 million Boulder City bypass, has no chance of being completed in the years ahead -- unless it is built as a toll road. Senate Bill 214, sponsored by Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, would lift the state ban on toll roads and designate the bypass as a public-private demonstration project.

The toll highway would relieve the severe traffic jams in and around Boulder City resulting from the recent opening of the Hoover Dam bypass bridge.

Another toll plan could add express lanes along U.S. Highway 95 and Interstate 15, creating an express route from the northwest valley to the south Strip. NDOT Director Susan Martinovich said lifting the toll ban could yield up to $1 billion in upgrades on I-15 alone.

"There are people who want to invest in transportation infrastructure because typically the returns are stable," she told the Review-Journal's Benjamin Spillman.

The alternative, if the toll road ban remains, is nothing. Nothing big gets built for a long, long time.

It's interesting that legislative Democrats are spending so much time talking about job creation, and have passed a bill to boost public works construction by diverting existing tax revenues, but seem closed to the idea of letting private-sector investments put people back to work. Why?

This is one of the easier calls of the 2011 session. The Legislature should pass SB83 and SB214.