Southern Nevadans get less bang for their road tax buck

CARSON CITY — Although the amount of money the Nevada Department of Transportation spends in Clark County is increasing, the state’s most populated county still receives much less in transportation spending than its citizens pay in fuel taxes.

During the past five years, the department has spent an annual average of $325 million on Clark County construction, maintenance and other types of highway projects.

That is 61 percent of the statewide average annual spending of $530 million.

Nearly 73 percent of the state’s 2.8 million residents are from Clark County. They contribute 70 percent of the state’s motor fuel taxes.

In contrast, Washoe County has only 15 percent of the state’s population but will receive 22 percent of the department’s spending in the 2005-09 fiscal year period.

Nonetheless, a department official said Tuesday that his agency realizes how badly roads are clogged in Clark County and is working to do something about it.

"There is a realization that the highway problems are serious in Las Vegas," said Kent Cooper, assistant director of engineering. "You don’t realize what people experience unless you drive there. I drive about twice a week in Las Vegas."

The 61 percent share Clark County receives is an improvement over the 53 percent share it secured in NDOT budgets during the 2003-07 period.

Cooper said Clark County’s share should increase in the next few years as his department concentrates on new construction in Las Vegas.

"We look at where our income is coming from and where it should go," Cooper said. "Then we try to balance it out over the needs of the state and our 5,000-mile system."

In the 2008-09 fiscal year, the department will spend 82 percent of its $698 million on new highway construction in Clark County, particularly the widening of Interstate 15 north of downtown Las Vegas.

Cooper does not see highway funding as a fair share, or north-south, issue, but an effort by NDOT to balance where limited dollars are spent.

Clark County’s share was down earlier this decade because NDOT funded a $330 million bypass freeway though Carson City and a $500 million Interstate 580 freeway from Reno to north of Carson City, he said.

The 81/2-mile Reno project entails the construction of eight bridges over mountain passes, including the spectacular, concrete arch Galena Creek Bridge that towers 150 feet above Pleasant Valley. The freeway is expected to handle 40,000 cars a day when completed in 2011.

If NDOT based its road building program strictly on usage, Cooper said, then no new highways would be built outside of Clark County.

He noted that freeways in Las Vegas attract 150,000 to more than 200,000 vehicles a day. No other area in the state has such high use.

Much of the road system NDOT must maintain is in snowy, high elevation Northern and rural Nevada areas where sand or salt often is placed on frozen pavement.

The inclement weather causes those highways to deteriorate and, as a result, most road preservation revenue is spent outside Clark County.

Highways such as Interstate 80, which runs more than 400 miles east-west across Northern Nevada, must be maintained if only for the sake of national commerce.

NDOT itself does not decide directly where funds are spent. A seven-member state Transportation Board, chaired by Gov. Jim Gibbons, agrees to annual construction programs. Three of the seven members are Clark County residents.

Ben Kieckhefer, Gibbons’ spokesman, said the governor has focused "almost entirely" during his nearly two years in office on sending highway funds to Clark County.

"That is the area with the greatest need," he added. "He will continue to focus on that area. If there has been a problem with funding, then take it up with the previous administration."

Kieckhefer noted that Gibbons’ legislation that found $1 billion for road construction in 2007 calls for spending money on Interstate 15 projects in Las Vegas.

Cooper said that new major projects are not scheduled for construction outside Clark County before 2013.

He added that NDOT, for the first time in its history, is showing a 3 percent to 5 percent decline in revenue from gas and diesel taxes.

Although fuel costs have dropped dramatically since July, NDOT has not yet noticed more driving by the public.

Because of the recession, NDOT does not plan to ask the Legislature to approve any tax increases. The state gas tax last was increased in 1992.

But the agency hopes road construction will be one of the key components of an economic stimulus package that could be approved by Congress in coming weeks or after President-elect Barack Obama takes office.

If that happens, Cooper said, then most of the construction would be carried out in Clark County. The state needs more than $4 billion in additional revenue to cover construction costs of roads it wants to build.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief at evogel@ or 775-687-3901.

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