CARSON CITY — Private construction and operation of toll roads, including toll lanes along Interstate 15, might be the only option Nevada has to finance highway construction, former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri told legislators Thursday.
Politicians and voters will not support gasoline tax increases to fund new highway construction because gasoline prices already are at near record highs and probably will climb, Gephardt said during the first meeting of an interim legislative subcommittee studying transportation issues.
But in response to questions, state Deputy Transportation Director Scott Rawlins said his agency has not completed studies that show the cost of constructing toll lanes on I-15, or how much of a toll would need to be collected.
“We haven’t gotten to that detail yet,” he said.
Rawlins said the state is working with California Department of Transportation officials on a plan to create toll lanes that begin on I-15 in California and run through Las Vegas and Mesquite.
He added there might be a toll lane for passenger cars, as well as one for commercial vehicles.
But he pointed out toll roads are not allowed under state law and there remains a “strong aversion” among legislators and citizens toward them. The idea died in the Legislature earlier this year.
Based on his talks with economists, Gephardt said the price of a barrel of oil, which has topped $90, will increase to more than $200. That leaves higher gasoline taxes out as an option for highway construction funds, he added.
Instead, he urged legislators to look toward toll roads and other public-private partnership arrangements to finance highway construction.
“It may be there are some (toll) projects that could be carried out in this area (Las Vegas), as well as in the northern part of the state,” said Gephardt, now general counsel for the Goldman Sachs investment company.
There was none of the debate that occurred elsewhere on the potential conflict with Goldman Sachs advising states on how to get the best price from investors for roads and also being an investor itself, hoping to pay a low price for roads or other government infrastructure.
The subcommittee meeting was teleconferenced between Las Vegas, where Gephardt spoke, and Carson City.
During an appearance before the Legislature in May, Gephardt said he saw toll roads as having “limited applicability” in Nevada.
He said then that he had visited Nevada frequently and believed that toll roads might be feasible for trucks along Interstate 80 in Northern Nevada and for passenger cars on freeways in Las Vegas. He said privately financed lanes on I-15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas might relieve congestion for tourists.
Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said Thursday that legislators are “a long way from saying that toll roads are the way to go.”
She said the subcommittee also should look at light rail and other options to relieve congestion in Southern Nevada.
Based on her experience with commissions that include California officials, Titus said she senses they are reluctant to consider toll roads and other improvements to I-15 because the thoroughfare is seen as a “gambling road.”
Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, said people should not be misled into believing “toll roads solve all the problems.”
He added legislators need to finance highway construction needs before current legislators are prevented from running again in 2010 because of term-limit requirements.
“This would become a big problem for new folks,” he said.
Gephardt explained to legislators that modern-day tolls are not paid by motorists who slow down and toss coins into a hopper. Instead, people who regularly use toll roads acquire a card that resembles a credit card.
They attach the card to their windshield. When they drive onto a toll road or lane, an electronic reader device over the highway reads the card and automatically sends them a toll bill each month.
If they do not have this toll card, then their license plate is photographed and they subsequently are billed for using the toll road or lane.
Townsend fears Las Vegas will be “strangled by traffic, strangled by smog” unless something is done.
But the legislative subcommittee cannot change the law prohibiting toll roads. It only can make a recommendation that legislators at the session in 2009 repeal that law.
A committee appointed by Gov. Jim Gibbons and staffed by the state Department of Transportation also is looking at privately financed toll roads and other public-private partnerships. Some legislators serve on both committees.
Contact Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@ reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3901. The Associated Press contributed to this report.