Cuts mean end of road for some projects

Government giveth and government taketh away.

In recent months the emphasis has, without a doubt, been on the taketh-ing.

With the state staring at a growing budget shortfall, the $170 million set aside for two major road projects was reduced by about a third last week. Gov. Jim Gibbons threw up the stop sign and told Nevada Department of Transportation Director Susan Martinovich he wants $56 million back.

Most of that money was to be used for the Interstate 15 widening project north of the Spaghetti Bowl. The $245 million project, which is under way, calls for new ramps at the Spaghetti Bowl and new interchanges north through Craig Road, in addition to widening the interstate from two to three lanes in each direction.

Motorists puttering along that section of I-15 know it's sorely needed. Sorely might be an understatement, since that freeway has never been widened since it was originally built.

Cancelling the I-15 project was out of the question. So Martinovich was left scrambling to find enough money to keep it going. She found $40 million in the department's coffers.

"To cancel the project would have cost us more," Martinovich said. "We would have had to pay him (the builder) for a lot of work already done and the money they would have lost on the project."

I can only imagine the lawsuit.

Instead, Martinovich scraped $20 million from her budget this year and in 2009.

The first $20 million was cut from the capital improvement projects. Things like expanding maintenance stations or building sand/salt sheds will have to wait at least a couple more years.

Also, a number of job openings are not going to be filled, she said. But no one is getting laid off.

The next $20 million will hit design and construction consultants hired to look at future projects.

But that leaves another $16 million to come up with. That money was supposed to be used to extend the widening of Blue Diamond Road west to state Route 160, Martinovich said.

The widening will be finished, but drivers hoping to avoid a bottleneck where the road turns toward Pahrump will have to wait longer for that project to happen.

Martinovich and her team will have to assess the transportation needs of the state and decide how best to spend their shrinking budget. Especially since -- in this budgetary climate -- they can't count on the money they've already been given.

"There are a lot of needs, and we now have to re-evaluate what we are doing," she said. "We appreciate the statewide challenges. We are a part of the state."

As a public service, I suggest the Transportation Department consider the following as it examines what should and shouldn't be cut:

First, kill any project north of Clark County. No offense to the north, but we've got the traffic troubles.

Also, any roads leading toward Yucca Mountain should be starved of funds. That would hamper plans for dumping nuclear waste there.

But any road to Pahrump should be spared. Some sources have told me they have great nightlife there.

All this postponing of projects reminds me of those Spaghetti Bowl desert tortoise statues. Maybe the state should change its mascot, or grind those things up to make asphalt if the budget gets any tighter.

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