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EDITORIAL: I-11 should be priority for infrastructure cash

Nevada public officials are weak-kneed at the thought of getting their hands on millions in new cash coming the state’s way thanks to passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill. The legislation includes $275 billion to pad the Highway Trust Fund over the next five years.

That’s well above current baseline spending for surface transportation, which is primarily paid for by gasoline taxes. In all, Nevada should receive more than $520 million through 2026 under the measure. The New York Times allowed that the “federal outlay, while less generous than President (Joe) Biden initially proposed, is still immense by any measure.”

A statement from the Nevada Department of Transportation said, “This funding is incredibly important for building and maintaining the critical infrastructure that Nevada’s growing population requires. While our long-term funding constraints still need to be addressed, we are pleased that this historic funding will put us on a better path to create a more connected, sustainable and equitable future for all Nevadans.”

That second sentence packs quite a punch, weaving in the usual progressive buzzwords while also warning taxpayers that no amount of their money will ever be enough. But in the near future, these are salad days for Nevada transportation officials and the private companies that compete for state road contracts.

It’s worth remembering, however, where this largess came from. It’s not free. Anything but. All of those billions were contributed by U.S. taxpayers spread from sea to shining sea. After being laundered through Congress and the federal bureaucracy, it will now return to the states, although via a much different formula than the one used to collect it.

State transportation officials say they’ll use the money to advance their One Nevada Plan, an 80-page document described as “a common foundation and shared policy framework for making more informed, transparent and responsive transportation investment decisions.” But the framework is long on bureaucratic jargon and short on specifics. NDOT officials should be prepared in the near future to offer a detailed priority list. Local planners should do the same.

While much of the money will no doubt come with progressive strings attached promoting dubious green initiatives, there is an opportunity to advance traditional infrastructure projects that have been neglected or delayed. The Interstate 11 project — connecting Phoenix to Reno and beyond via Las Vegas — should be at the top of the list along with Interstate 15 upgrades.

By many measures, Nevada’s transportation infrastructure already ranks highly. The Silver State remains sparsely settled, and many of its roads and bridges are new thanks to recent population growth. NDOT notes that “Nevada currently ranks among the top states for the condition of state-owned and maintained roads and bridges,” with “about 97 percent of Nevada’s state-maintained bridges rated in good or fair condition,” far better than the national average.

This unexpected money gives state and local officials the chance to make the necessary repairs on the small number of roads and bridges that are in disrepair. Money must also be used to alleviate the many traffic bottlenecks in more populated areas, particularly in Southern Nevada. Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones, who chairs the Regional Transportation Commission, said technological improvements including traffic light timing should also be on the list. He’s correct — as every local driver who has spent 90 seconds as the lone vehicle at a red light will eagerly attest.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first massive infusion of cash from Washington in recent months. Previous pandemic-related legislation for schools, small businesses, renters and others have left many state and local public officials flush and wondering how to spend all the money. For now, we’ll ignore the long-term wisdom of such economic policy, but suffice it to say that it should leave state lawmakers will scant justification for raising taxes during upcoming legislative sessions.

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