Dilly-dallying on roads

Thursday marks the midpoint of the 2007 legislative session, meaning lawmakers have only two months to pass a budget and wrap up their sausage-making enterprise.

By now, Southern Nevada’s representatives should be well on their way toward addressing the state’s most pressing economic and quality-of-life issue: the worsening gridlock on the Las Vegas Valley’s major highways.

The valley’s highways need more capacity, and the Nevada Department of Transportation has the plans in place to make billions of dollars worth of major improvements. If the Legislature identifies funding this session, the highway agency can have the work done within seven years.

Clark County lawmakers have the numbers to force their will in the capital. With more than two-thirds of the seats in the legislative branch, they can pass any plan and override any veto. Considering the frustration Las Vegas drivers endure every day and politicians’ predisposition to help voters with their hardships, the highway funding issue should be a done deal by now.

If only that were the case. Aside from an agreement to use $170 million of the state’s general fund surplus to widen I-15 between the U.S. Highway 95 interchange and Craig Road, there is nothing approaching a consensus on how to turn highway construction plans into actual pavement. Instead, lawmakers are busy shuffling the papers of hundreds of unnecessary bills through committee hearings and toward the oblivion of rival chambers.

In the Assembly, where 29 of the 42 members hail from Clark County, majority Democrats are spending all their political capital on universal full-day kindergarten, a program of highly questionable benefit. They’re poised to bring the Legislature to a grinding halt over $70 million in education spending differences with the Senate and Gov. Jim Gibbons. That amount, equal to roughly 1 percent of the entire general fund, would barely cover a single new freeway interchange.

Meanwhile, the transportation committees in the Assembly and Senate are biding their time considering the minutiae of driver’s licenses, speciality license plates, vehicle registrations and standards for studded tires. This week’s committee meetings will not address the highway funding crisis.

Where’s the leadership on the one issue before lawmakers that affects every taxpaying constituent and special interest every single day? It’s not coming from Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley of Las Vegas. It’s not coming from Gov. Gibbons or Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, both residents of gridlock-free Reno. And it’s sure not coming from Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, or Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, the chairmen of the Legislature’s transportation committees.

The only proposal on paper is Senate Bill 324, which seeks to implement many of the recommendations of a task force that spent more than a year examining the Department of Transportation’s projected funding shortfall. The bill has some good provisions, such as diverting sales tax revenue from vehicle sales and repairs from the general fund to the highway trust and requiring performance assessments for the Department of Transportation. Others, such as annual, inflation-indexed increases to the per-gallon gasoline tax, are bad.

Even if no one in Carson City is talking about the bill, at least it’s a start.

Meantime, Clark County’s lawmakers should, at a minimum, demand that the state’s entire general fund surplus, which could exceed $400 million, be applied to I-15 improvements. Then they need to start acting and voting as a bipartisan, regional bloc.

Southern Nevada’s traffic problems can’t be pushed back to a 2008 ballot question or the 2009 legislative session. Las Vegas Valley lawmakers need to make highway funding their highest priority.

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