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Reviewing the Legislature of lost opportunities

Looking back at the end of the 2009 state legislative session, I can’t help but think of missed opportunities.

Opportunities to make our roads better, to increase safety on our highways, to lower health care costs from vehicle crashes, and to increase the capacity on our freeways with little cost to taxpayers.

Instead what we got were increases in vehicle registration taxes, added fees to driver’s license exams and new required registration for off-road vehicles.

Perhaps the most public flub during the session was the Nevada Department of Transportation’s attempt to convince the Assembly to rewrite state law to allow toll lanes.

Transportation officials failed to educate legislators about the benefit of constructing a $1 billion project without taxpayer money, and legislators stayed as closed-minded as ever on the issue, even as numerous European countries and other U.S. states embrace the idea.

Transportation officials wanted 19 miles of toll lanes to be built on Las Vegas freeways to be funded by more than $1 billion of private money, a concept that is not allowed under Nevada law.

It was viewed by transportation officials as a cure for lower projected tax revenues.

After a contentious hearing, the bill died in the Assembly’s Energy, Infrastructure and Transportation Committee.

A ban on hand-held cell phone use while driving was also killed in committee. And a bill banning text messaging on cell phones while driving made it all the way to the final day of the session on Monday, but eventually died.

There was a strong effort made by some lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and traffic safety advocates to change the state law regarding seat belts.

But it too failed.

It will remain a secondary offense, which means drivers cannot be pulled over for failing to wear a seat belt.

State Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, made a valiant effort to keep the bill alive by trying to amend it to other bills, but to no avail.

Taxpayer dollars will have to continue to pay the cost of police, fire and medical personnel and private contractors such as tow trucks and morticians who respond to vehicle crashes that involve motorists severely injured or killed because they weren’t wearing seat belts.

An intensive study of red-light cameras, meant to electronically ticket drivers who run red lights, by the North Las Vegas Police Department impressed few lawmakers and that bill was completely rewritten. It ultimately died.

The results of such cameras in cities such as Phoenix show a drop in crashes and injuries at intersections that employ electronic enforcement.

In the meantime, the Transportation Department’s budget includes more than $750 million for capital improvement projects for the fiscal years 2010 and 2011. The department receives its funding from the state highway fund, made up from revenues that include the state fuel tax.

Of course that doesn’t come close to covering the more than $8 billion in projects on the department’s wish list, which includes widening Interstate 15 from California to Las Vegas, improving interchanges along the Las Vegas Beltway and widening U.S. Highway 95 in the northwest valley.

The Legislature also failed to deal with some of the federal government’s Real ID requirements for driver’s licenses, which would have helped prevent identity theft and was a tool to fight terrorism.

Lawmakers did approve a bill to force the city of Las Vegas and the Transportation Department to come up with up to $70 million in funding to reopen F Street in West Las Vegas.

Then there were the laws passed by the Legislature despite the governor’s veto stamp.

The vehicle registration tax is currently levied on a value that depreciates to 85 percent after a year and 10 percent per year thereafter, down to a $6 minimum. That now changes to 95 percent after a year and 10 percent per year thereafter, down to a $16 minimum. This is projected to raise $94 million in revenue.

There will be added fees to driver’s license exams. And those planning on buying off-road vehicles must now register them with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

In sports, there’s the expression “wait ’till next year.”

Here in Nevada we have to wait two years for the next legislative session.

Meanwhile, we will watch construction costs go up, our roads become worse for wear, and motorists’ frustration and anger grow with our state’s transportation and safety inadequacies.

At least we’ll all have something to complain about.

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.

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