Highway spending

The Nevada Department of Transportation doesn’t have enough money to complete some badly needed highway improvements in gridlocked Las Vegas. But the reason for that revenue shortfall is not the eroding buying power of the state’s gasoline and vehicle registration taxes.

It lies in a valley some 400 miles northwest of here.

There, in the mountains between Reno and Carson City, NDOT is spending half a billion dollars on a dazzling new freeway that, when finished in mid-2011, will include one of the longest concrete-arch bridges in the United States. In places, the 8.5-mile road will rise hundreds of feet above the ground, requiring the installation of millions of dollars worth of deicing equipment.

When visiting Southern Nevadans use the sparkling Interstate 580 to speed between Reno and the state capital, they’ll no doubt look down at the old route, U.S. Highway 395, and wonder why that road wasn’t simply widened. If transportation planners had gone the practical route, the project would have cost only $125 million, the Review-Journal reported Monday, freeing $375 million to be spent right now on higher-priority improvements.

Instead, NDOT will end up spending about as much on I-580 as the agency did on the just-completed widening of U.S. Highway 95 from downtown Las Vegas to the Rainbow Curve. Only the I-580 project, when complete, will carry about one-tenth the traffic that U.S. 95 will have three years from now.

The call to splurge came almost 30 years ago, when NDOT decided against condemning homes along U.S. 395. No one stepped forward in the years that followed — not even Govs. Bob Miller and Kenny Guinn, both Southern Nevadans — to put a stop to the squandering project.

“It was a political decision, not an engineering decision, on where to put the route,” said Dave Titzel, an assistant district engineer based in Northern Nevada.

As a result, NDOT has had to push back several important Southern Nevada projects, including the widening of Interstate 15 between U.S. 95 and Sahara. This has many lawmakers agitating for higher taxes on gasoline, vehicle registrations and driver’s licenses to speed up the work.

But that’s the wrong approach. Instead, lawmakers should make sure that in the foreseeable future, the Reno-Sparks-Carson City area, which already has enviable traffic flow and will gain a freeway infrastructure years ahead of driver demand, gets no state funding for major additional highway expansions.

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