Gibbons objects to plan for toll roads

CARSON CITY — Gov. Jim Gibbons said Tuesday that he opposes legislation to allow toll roads in Nevada unless motorists have a free alternate route.

“I don’t favor making toll roads out of existing highways that people are already using,” he said. “If they want to add a lane — they call them high-speed Lexus lanes in California — and give people a choice, OK. I am not going to make people pay a toll on a road that now is free.”

Gibbons made the comments in an interview just before the Senate Transportation Committee debated Senate Bill 392, a bill that would permit state and local governments to build and operate toll roads and bridges.

Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, blasted the bill, calling it “way premature” and asserting toll roads would hurt working people who use highways frequently in Clark County.

“This would be a burden on people,” Lee said.

Senate Transportation Chairman Dennis Nolan, who introduced the bill, said Lee was echoing the sentiments of most people.

But Nolan, R-Las Vegas, said toll roads may be the only option the state has to finance new highway construction. The public must be educated on modern toll roads, which don’t involve throwing coins into a basket, he added.

Nolan said Interstate 15 toll lanes might largely be financed by tourists. The toll lanes would free up other lanes for dog catchers, police officers, plumbers and other workers who drive the road frequently, according to Nolan.

But Lee said visitors just go to their hotel rooms and do not return to highways until they leave.

“Let’s make the Las Vegas Strip a toll road,” responded Lee. “There are 200,000 cars a day on it. It would generate a lot of cash. There is our toll road.”

“Anything is possible,” Nolan responded. “It is an option.”

Deputy Transportation Director Scott Rawlins pointed out the Strip is a county road and an extensive hearing process would be required before it became a toll road.

No action was taken on the bill. Nolan said another hearing will be conducted next week at which experts on public-private partnerships might testify.

Rawlins said there interest by private companies in constructing toll, high occupancy and other new lanes on I-15. He estimated that it would take four to six years before contracts could be finalized and designs completed to begin construction.

A similar toll bill, Assembly Bill 417, is under consideration in the Assembly. That bill, by Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, specifies a free alternative route must be available for drivers. SB392 does not.

Under the provisions of the Senate bill, governments could enter into agreements with private sources for funds to build toll roads and bridges.

With Gibbons adamantly opposed to tax increases, privately financed toll roads and other types of public-private highway partnerships are under consideration by the Legislature.

A citizens’ task force recommended in December that the Legislature raise taxes and modify existing taxes to finance the $3.8 billion needed to construct 10 major highway projects between 2008-15.

But last week former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. — who works as a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, which invests in privately operated toll roads — said he sees only limited uses for toll roads and other privately financed highways in Nevada.

Gibbons, who attended Gephardt’s presentation, said he still wants to look at toll roads and public-private partnerships.

“There is limited use for it, but we should not exclude it,” Gibbons said. “I am not going to dismiss it because it is limited. I am not a big fan of toll roads, but I am not saying we should automatically take it off the table.”

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