Worse congestion predicted

CARSON CITY — Traffic congestion in Las Vegas will become unbearable in the next few years unless the Nevada Legislature finds $450 million more per year for highway construction, state Transportation Director Susan Martinovich said Friday.

“If we don’t get the money, we will have to postpone projects,” Martinovich said. “Congestion will increase, and congestion will cost you time and money. There are already huge issues in Las Vegas regarding congestion.”

A Reason Foundation study predicted Las Vegas will become the ninth most congested city in the nation by 2030 unless a substantial investment is made in new road construction.

Trips that should take 30 minutes will take 52 minutes that year, according to the study, released in 2006.

Earlier this week, Martinovich told a legislative committee that 15 projects to reduce highway congestion in Clark County, including a $1 billion project to widen U.S. Highway 95 between Interstate 15 and Maryland Parkway, will be delayed unless the additional revenue is found. Nearly 200,000 cars a day now travel on that road.

Both phases of the $1.1 billion Project NEON plan to relieve congestion along I-15 in the Spaghetti Bowl and downtown Las Vegas area also will be delayed.

The highway now carries 260,000 vehicles a day, making it the busiest road in the Las Vegas Valley. The traffic load is predicted to climb to 500,000 vehicles a day in 2030.

Martinovich told legislators that NDOT estimates its unfunded construction needs at $6 billion, compared with the $3.8 billion shortfall the agency discussed during the 2007 Legislature.

With Republican Gov. Jim Gibbons ready to veto any tax increase proposals, legislators and the governor that year approved a $1 billion construction program that used revenue from three existing taxes.

Highway costs have skyrocketed because the costs of construction materials like concrete and asphalt have been increasing more than overall inflation rate.

Nonetheless, Martinovich hopes money will be found during the 2009 legislative session.

“I am going to be optimistic,” Martinovich said. “These projects may be delayed, but we are going to design them and be ready to build them when money is available. Transportation projects help the economy. They get people to work and they put people to work.”

But legislators of both parties expressed frustration earlier this week about finding any money for roads because of Gibbons’ continuing vow to veto all bills that increase taxes.

It would be pointless for legislators to propose taxes for roads during the 2009 Legislature unless they know in advance that the governor will support them, said state Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno.

Legislators might approve taxes for roads over Gibbons’ objections, said Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas. He asked the legislators to meet with their colleagues and agree by June 4 on a highway tax plan.

But Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said moves to reach a consensus on a tax for roads would be an “exercise in futility” unless most Republicans say upfront they will vote to override a veto.

She opposes increasing the gasoline tax and building toll roads, but she supports more taxes on the trucking industry, which NDOT studies show does not pay its fair share.

“They (Gibbons administration) seem to think the only way to do it is through toll roads,” Titus said. “Paying tolls to use a road is a tax. I want to tax trucking and the governor doesn’t. A tax on trucking just would level the playing field.”

Analyses show the trucking industry contributes about $300 million a year less in taxes and fees to NDOT than the road damage caused by trucks.

But Gibbons maintained in an interview in the fall that he objects to taxing truckers more since any increase would be passed on to consumers.

Martinovich said her agency’s top priority remains I-15, but NDOT now is struggling to carry out maintenance, bridge and safety projects with its current revenues.

Without the additional funds, she said NDOT can construct only one major new project a year — not the 20 around the state that the agency has identified are needed.

The entire $450 million annual increase would not be needed initially. Her analysis shows legislators must find about $80 million a year in additional revenue during the 2009 session. That amount would increase to $350 million in the 2011 session and to more than $450 million in 2016.

Construction on the U.S. 95 project in downtown Las Vegas was scheduled to start in 2011, according to Martinovich, but work will be delayed until a funding source is found.

The initial $655 million phase of Project NEON would begin in 2010, while the second $465 million phase was slated to start in 2011.

Project NEON would widen I-15 to 16 lanes at the Spaghetti Bowl, including up to 12 express lanes to carry traffic through downtown.

A connector road would be built over I-15 that would link Martin Luther King Boulevard to Industrial Road. A flyover ramp would link Oakey Boulevard and Wyoming Avenue over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or (775) 687-3901.

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