'Shovel ready' projects tilt money north

Southern Nevada politician to Northern Nevada: "Get your grubby hands off our stimulus package!"

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., said that much, if not more politely, on Friday, upon learning that 38 percent of the federal transportation stimulus funding may be used in Washoe County and only 14 percent in Clark County.

Those numbers come from a preliminary list of projects by the Nevada Department of Transportation of how to spend $140 million of the total $201 million in transportation funding that Nevada received in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Berkley had met with transportation director Susan Martinovich in Washington, D.C., earlier in the week and, according to the congresswoman, was assured that Southern Nevada "would get its rightful share of these valuable stimulus dollars for some of our many essential road projects."

Upon seeing the list, which proposes spending $52.5 million of the money in Washoe County and nearly $20 million in Clark County, Berkley was none too pleased.

"Like all other Las Vegans, I was profoundly disappointed to see NDOT's proposed distribution of discretionary stimulus funding by county. What has been publicly disclosed is not what I was told and is simply not acceptable to me," Berkley said in a prepared statement.

To be honest, I'm not really that upset with the list, and I'll explain why.

But first here's a breakdown of how the state has to use the $201 million in transportation stimulus funding:

The Transportation Department received about 60 percent, or nearly $140 million, to spend as it sees fit. Of the remaining money, $40 million is going to the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, about $10 million is going to the Washoe County metropolitan planning organization, and the remaining money must be used in rural areas.

Martinovich had decided, as I reported last week, that most of the money would be used on paving projects. The money the state received was not enough to do even one of the massive road construction projects that Nevada needs.

On the other hand, paving projects produce more jobs in more places throughout Nevada than one major project in one place could do.

Of the 15 projects listed on the preliminary list, 14 are paving projects.

Of the 14 paving projects, Clark County gets $19.9 million and Washoe County gets $14.9 million.

Rural counties on the list -- Pershing, Elko, Lander, and Humboldt -- combined actually get more money for paving projects, about $66.8 million, than Clark and Washoe counties.

The project on the list that slants the percentage in Washoe's favor is construction of an interchange from U.S. Highway 395 to Meadowood Mall in Reno.

To help fund that $50 million project, the Transportation Department planned on using $37.6 million from the state's share of the stimulus funding, according to the preliminary list. The remaining money would come from the Washoe metropolitan planning organization.

The project is "shovel ready." In other words it just needs money so construction can start. Transportation officials believe the two-year project could create 1,200 jobs.

While there is a much needed interchange in Southern Nevada -- the Cactus interchange off of Interstate 15 in the southern valley -- that project is still in the design phase and won't be "shovel ready" for another couple of years.

But the Transportation Department can't wait that long because of time limits imposed on Nevada. Half the money must be spent in 120 days or it goes back to Congress.

Meanwhile, there is a bigger picture.

By using the stimulus money to pay for these "shovel ready" projects, $140 million in state and federal money that would have been used for those projects is freed up.

That money doesn't just go away. It can be used on other transportation projects, said Kent Cooper, the state transportation department's assistant director for engineering. If it isn't, the state could lose it.

Following federal guidelines (which are different than the stimulus guidelines), that money could be used for construction projects in Clark County, including the $16 million widening of Cheyenne Avenue and a $22 million Freeway and Arterial System of Transportation project in the valley.

Before the stimulus plan, those two projects weren't expected to be able to move forward until 2010, at the earliest.

The stimulus money "allows us to advance more projects" quickly, Cooper said.

On top of that, the stimulus package appropriated $1.5 billion that the U.S. Department of Transportation will distribute on an application basis.

Cooper said Nevada is planning on applying for that money to fund several high capacity projects, including the $155 million widening of U.S. Highway 95 from the Rainbow Curve to Ann Road.

And Cooper stressed the list has yet to be finalized.

In the end, I don't really have a problem with Washoe getting $37.6 million for an interchange project, because I believe there's even more money heading our way.

And if it doesn't, I'll be standing right beside Berkley demanding answers.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call the Road Warrior at 702-387-2904, or e-mail him at roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com. Please include your phone number.