Sandoval: Presidential contenders may be judged on support for Interstate 11

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidates in 2016 may face a new litmus test when it comes to winning support in Nevada: whether they will fund a highway connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Much as presidential contenders in 2008 were judged on whether they opposed storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, support for the proposed Interstate 11 could become a key measurement in the upcoming contest. At least that was the advice Gov. Brian Sandoval said he will heed after a weekend gathering of the National Governors Association.

“That’s the message I will have coming up in ’16, that those who are interested in Nevada need to be aware of our infrastructure needs, and that’s a big one,” Sandoval said Monday of the 300-mile project.

In the short term, governors at the meeting expressed concern that the government will run out of road funding for states in August or September before Congress can pass legislation extending federal highway programs.

At an economic development session Saturday, Sandoval asked about the long-term view. Although most states are focused on maintaining their interstates, there are portions that need to be built, such as between Las Vegas and Phoenix, the two largest cities not connected by a major highway.

Is there still money for such projects?

Roy Kienitz, a former transportation undersecretary, told Sandoval the time to gather commitments for a major highway project is during a presidential campaign.

“The way you get $200 billion is that the candidate campaigns on it before he or she becomes president,” said Kienitz, a consultant who served as undersecretary in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011. “If you don’t, they’ve campaigned on something else, they get into office and all of a sudden you are a big, expensive problem.”

Kienitz said Interstate 11 “from a policy point is an absolutely eligible thing.” But, he cautioned, when federal funding is tight, “that is usually the thing that gets off the list because nobody can ever put enough money together at one time to do something that big.”

On other issues at the conference:

■ After being briefed by President Barack Obama with other Western governors, Sandoval said he will support a proposal to fight wildfires with money from a special disaster fund rather than shifting costs from public land accounts.

The practice historically shortchanges fire prevention, as money set aside for restoration is diverted to firefighting.

Sandoval said for Nevada, this “exacerbates the problem because if we don’t have proper restoration the cheat grass comes in and that is even more susceptible to wildfires and makes the problems worse.”

Sandoval said it was agreed Western governors would work with the Obama administration on strategies to deal with the ongoing drought.

■ Sandoval and nine other governors urged Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to avoid steep cuts in the National Guard as he looks to cut defense spending.

The governors argued the Guard has remained stable since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while there has been “a huge surge” in active forces, Sandoval said.

“If there are going to be cuts there needs to be a recognition that you can’t put us below where we were on 9/11,” Sandoval said.

“The mission of the Guard is much more important than it ever was, not only for going overseas and deploying but for what they do within our states. So when you reduce the Guard within our states, it leaves us even more vulnerable when we have actual disasters.”

■ Several governors asked about Nevada’s experience legalizing online poker. Sandoval declined to name the governors but said he told them, “It’s been very positive. It’s working out extremely well.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.

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