For Harry Reid, November approaches faster than ACExpress

The moment appeared to defy political gravity.

On a breezy Monday in recession-scorched Las Vegas, a sprout of hope appeared in the form of the Centennial Hills Transit Center and Park & Ride.

Did it mark a turn in our frosty economic winter, or just another sign of false spring?

Granted, the transit center project wasn’t privately funded and is downright diminutive compared with the behemoth construction jobs that once crowded the Strip. The $8.8 million it took to build came from the federal government — more than $6 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “stimulus” fund and another $2.5 million wrangled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The funding was fast-tracked into the center, where its handsome ACE super buses now take passengers in style to downtown, the Strip and UNLV.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I rode the bus in grade school. I took the Greyhound when I was short on cash. Why would I want to ride a bus when there’s so much cheap parking?”

Overcoming that mentality has been the Regional Transportation Commission’s challenge. A lot of locals only go downtown for jury duty or if their bail is revoked, but the emphasis on moving commuters in a timely manner makes the ACE buses intriguing.

Ironically enough, it is the recession that might “encourage” many cash-strapped Southern Nevadans to try mass transit. The more who use it, the better the odds of it expanding into a more comprehensive system.

Like the transit system itself, communities are built one link at a time.

That was the optimistic reverie Monday during an opening ceremony that doubled as a Democratic Party photo-op with Reid as the mild-mannered man of the hour. When Reid said the transit project was not only about moving people but also about moving the economy, he had everyone’s attention. Three similar transit projects are planned for Southern Nevada.

Standing in front of some of the local building trades workers who built the project, alongside allies Rep. Shelley Berkley, Rep. Dina Titus, Mayor Oscar Goodman, City Councilman Steve Ross and County Commissioner Larry Brown, Reid talked about the nearly $2 billion Nevada is to receive in stimulus dollars.

“We’ve done a lot,” Reid said. “We have a lot more to do. But it’s no solace to these men back here, and women back here, to talk about what we have done. Because it’s very hard to explain to someone who’s afraid of losing their job, they’ve lost their job, or are afraid they’re going to lose their home, they’ve lost their home, to explain to them, ‘Well, things would be a lot worse had we not done this.’ We understand that. We understand that Nevada’s been hit harder than any other state.”

It was a strong moment for the senator.

But can Reid stand in front of enough handsome, tangible community assets made possible by the stimulus largesse and his own formidable clout to overcome the Republican election year mantra: “What have you done for us lately?”

Although projects are in the pipeline, November approaches faster than the ACExpress, and Monday’s optimistic celebration will be hard to repeat.

Republicans, meanwhile, will be challenged to send a message that I call “hope on a budget.” Forwarding tough conservative philosophy might sound like sweet music to party stalwarts and the Tea Party true believers, but translating that tough love for people who are struggling to keep jobs and hang onto homes won’t be easy. If the GOP isn’t very calculating, it will have Harry Reid to kick around for six more years.

Is the transit center a sign of rejuvenation for Las Vegas, and Reid, or a handsome bus stop to nowhere?

On such a gravity-defying day, almost anything seemed possible.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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