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Highway director sees changes on horizon

I’ve echoed these figures so often that it’s committed to memory: The Las Vegas Valley is adding a new resident every seven minutes. A new home is built every 17 minutes. Around 100 new cars and trucks join the valley’s road network every day.

That sort of hypergrowth ensures that we can’t build roads fast enough, and we’ll never have enough money to construct all the lanes we need to stay ahead of congestion.

To address that dilemma, we might have to completely change how we build roads in this country and how we pay for the work, according to Rick Capka.

Capka should know. He’s the chief administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, ranking him among the nation’s most powerful road czars.

"Take a look at the growth here in Las Vegas. Reliable transportation needs to be one of the features to sustain the growth and desirability of Las Vegas. When you have that kind of demand, there’s going to be all sorts of opportunities to optimize the infrastructure here," Capka said Monday. "It’s going to take some innovation to make the optimum use of the capacity that exists right now."

Capka was in the valley last week to look at one of those new ways of doing business, a concept called "design-build" that will be used in widening Interstate 15 north of downtown Las Vegas.

The concept, never used on a Nevada road project, involves hiring a single contractor to design and build a project, instead of having one firm design a road, then pass the project to a second company for construction.

Using design-build, some portions of a project may be built while other segments are still under design.

In theory, it will allow I-15 to be widened within two years, while traditional approaches could take twice that long.

"The traditional way adds time before you can get construction going," Capka said. "It (design-build) allows the contractor to set the pace of when construction starts."

With public-private partnerships, governments sell or lease highways to private companies, which then charge tolls, maintain the roads and try to eke out a profit.

Such a scheme is being considered to underwrite proposed I-15 express lanes between Las Vegas and California.

"It’s an extension of the evolving relationship between what the public sector needs and what the private sector can deliver. And the private sector can do a lot," Capka said. "You put a lot of that in the hands of the private sector, and you see a lot of innovation."

And cash-strapped states are looking for answers wherever they can find it.

"We’re hearing from more governors that they need more tools," Capka said. "One governor was telling me, ‘We can’t wait for Washington to sort out money problems.’ I think that’s reflective of what we’re seeing in a number of urban areas, like Las Vegas."

There is some risk. To date, such concepts have been little-used on road projects in the United States, so the unintended consequences are anybody’s guess.

"We’re learning as we go along. We’ll be sharing the lessons we learn in all of these (projects) with all the potential state users of these tools," Capka said.

Given the growth, Las Vegas is likely a fertile testing ground for those concepts.

"Wherever you have the capacity of the system being challenged, you want to seek ways to optimize how the system is being used," Capka said. "I think Las Vegas, with all the growth, the potential is there" to use such tools.

Another concept that’s floating around Washington and might drift to Nevada someday is some form of "congestion pricing," where drivers are billed based on what roads they use, and when.

"Maybe there’s an opening for us to explore ‘pay as you go.’ Pay for what you use. Pay when you use it. It’s like paying for electricity in the heat of the day. There’s peak pricing, where you pay more," Capka said. "If we price our highways, we can encourage a more efficient use of the capacity we have."

Capka said use of such pricing to support road work makes more sense than the traditional method of relying on gasoline taxes that essentially allow drivers to pay a flat rate.

"We’re not pricing efficiently (via the gasoline tax), whether it’s overpricing or underpricing. We’re not encouraging the public to use the infrastructure in an optimal fashion," Capka said. "We’ve got to do a better job of encouraging people to use their discretion wisely."

But Capka doesn’t suggest congestion pricing, or any other approach, is a magic bullet for maintaining roads. It depends on the particulars of any given situation.

"It’s a tool in the toolbox," Capka said. "It’s not necessarily the right tool for everyone, but we’ve seen some places where it’s worked quite well."

The price of failure can be found in ever-increasing commuting times for drivers here and across the country. And that’s something that can affect everyone’s bottom line, eventually.

"There’s a lot at stake," Capka said. "If the surface transportation system is brought to its knees, our nation’s position in the world’s economy is at risk."

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call the City Desk at 383-0264, or send an e-mail to roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com. Please include your phone number.

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