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Gibbons presents traffic plan

For the past four months, Gov. Jim Gibbons has been the proverbial fish swimming in a barrel. His critics have hovered overhead, scoring direct hits on shot after shot.

The newly inaugurated Republican brought a lot of the trouble on himself. Between his refusal to offer full disclosure on his legal defense fund, being too open about imagined conspiracies against him, and delays in unveiling specifics on his legislative priorities, the former congressman has done a fine job keeping a bull’s-eye affixed to his back side.

But now, Gov. Gibbons has finally stepped forward and provided some much-needed leadership on the state’s most pressing issue: identifying billions of dollars in funding for badly needed highway improvements in Southern Nevada. Inflationary pressures have left the tax structure that supports highway construction and maintenance unable to cover an estimated $5 billion worth of projects the state wants to complete over the next decade. Interstate 15 is most in need of additional lanes.

With less than a month to go in the Legislature’s regular session, Assembly Democrats haven’t budged from their position that massive tax increases are the only way to pay for improved highway capacity, even though Gov. Gibbons has made it clear he will veto any tax increase brought to his desk. Public opinion polls conducted for the Review-Journal indicate little statewide support for tax hikes.

On Thursday, Gov. Gibbons swam into this void and presented a plan to ease gridlock in Las Vegas. He suggested shifting a portion of the future growth in sales, live entertainment and room tax revenue to the highway trust. Doing so would allow the Nevada Department of Transportation to bond $2.5 billion worth of projects and start work on them almost immediately. And with no tax increases.

Suddenly, those in Carson City who had made a sport out of dissing the governor are on the defensive. If they kill the governor’s plan solely to deny him a political victory, years of highway gridlock and a deteriorating quality of life will be their burden to carry. Can they come up with a compromise that will have the support of both the public and the governor? The next three weeks will tell.

In the meantime, the most vocal opposition to the governor’s proposal will come from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the agency charged with maintaining the gush of tourists and business travelers pouring into the valley. Gov. Gibbon’s plan would siphon about $424 million from the authority by 2015, revenue that will come from the tens of thousands of new hotel rooms scheduled to come online by then.

The visitors authority is warning of an economic doomsday for Clark County if the agency has to get by on slower revenue growth. Authority officials and board members say they’ll have to cancel nearly $1 billion worth of planned Las Vegas Convention Center renovations, which will cost the agency about $20 billion in business over the next 17 years.

This smacks of exaggeration. The visitors authority, perhaps the best-funded public agency in Nevada, will still have more than $200 million per year in room tax revenue to operate and improve its convention center and promote the valley as a leisure and business travel destination. The Strip’s major resorts have invested billions of private dollars in their own convention facilities, expanding and diversifying the city’s meeting space well beyond what the Las Vegas Convention Center offers.

Gov. Gibbons’ proposal isn’t going to sail through both houses of the Legislature. But it offers Clark County commuters their first legitimate hope that a highway funding solution can be found before the Legislature adjourns June 4. “Parts of it can be supported. Parts of it won’t,” said Assembly Minority Leader Garn Mabey, R-Las Vegas. “Other peoples’ ideas will become part of it.”

One idea that should “become a part of it” is putting the state’s entire general fund budget surplus, which should amount to more than $300 million by July 1, into the highway trust. Thus far, lawmakers and Gov. Gibbons seem inclined to apply only $170 million of that total toward highway improvements. They should go further.

Meantime, though, concerns that the Gibbons plan might hurt our tourism economy will have traction — especially when presented by powerful gaming lobbyists. But lawmakers must consider: What will happen to the Las Vegas tourism trade if they allow already-gridlocked I-15 to become so clogged that visitors from Southern California can’t make it here and back in a single weekend?

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