Taking a toll

There’s a giant orange barrel in the way of efforts to expand Southern Nevada’s congested highways: the state law that makes toll roads illegal.

More and more metropolitan areas are embracing privately constructed toll lanes and roadways as the best way to relieve gridlock. Investors are offering state governments and transit authorities a way around highway revenue shortfalls: buying or leasing existing roadways, or building new lanes on busy thoroughfares for the right to collect tolls from the motorists who use them.

However, Nevada politicians have been reluctant to join the caravan. Although Las Vegas Valley motorists are practically parked on many stretches of highway during rush hour, the idea of giving drivers the option of paying for a smoother commute has run into red light after red light.

The 2007 Legislature killed legislation that would have at least allowed the consideration of toll roads and lanes as part of the state’s long-term highway construction plans.

On Thursday, former congressman Richard Gephardt told a legislative subcommittee studying transportation issues that toll roads and public-private partnerships hold great promise for relieving Nevada’s highway funding shortfalls. Mr. Gephardt is now general counsel for Goldman Sachs, an investment company that has a stake in toll roads.

A good candidate for such an arrangement, Mr. Gephardt said, was Interstate 15. The state’s busiest highway carries regional commercial traffic and millions of Southern California visitors every year. Adding toll lanes at investors’ expense could provide relief for locals and tourists alike, he said.

His pitch didn’t win a round of applause. Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said lawmakers were “a long way from saying that toll roads are the way to go.”

So why not get rid of the law that makes toll roads illegal? Like any other highway project, toll roads would still be subject to approval from lawmakers and transportation officials. The current statute only serves to scare away interested investors.

I-15 is indeed a good candidate for toll lanes. But the state’s best prospect for a toll road is the as-yet-unbuilt Boulder City bypass, which will be needed to handle traffic from the Hoover Dam bypass bridge, scheduled to be finished in 2009 or 2010.

Lawmakers need to leave all their options open to stay ahead of the valley’s worsening traffic.

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