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Toll lanes picking up speed

A proposal for Nevada’s first highway toll lanes is picking up speed in the buildup to the 2009 Legislature. A transportation subcommittee stopped short of recommending the privately funded project last week, but lawmakers sick of dealing with budget cuts are warming to the idea of having someone else pay for needed infrastructure improvements.

The plan calls for 19-mile express lanes to be built from U.S. Highway 95 and Ann Road in the northwest valley to Interstate 15 and the southern Las Vegas Beltway, with ramps that fly over the Spaghetti Bowl interchange downtown. Investors would cover the entire $1.4 billion construction cost and $1 million in annual maintenance, and charge users between 10 cents and $1 per mile driven, depending on peak demand. The lanes would be free for express buses, emergency vehicles and cars with three or more passengers.

It’s good that lawmakers are exercising some caution in vetting the proposal. After all, the project’s biggest benefit — that it won’t cost taxpayers a dime up front — could become a trap door if it ever defaults. The Nevada Department of Transportation already has about $6 billion worth of work on an unfunded waiting list — it can’t be on the hook for bills it can’t pay.

However, the biggest obstacle to the project remains state statute. Under Nevada law, road and bridge tolls are illegal. The toll proposal needs an exemption from the 2009 Legislature to keep moving forward.

But how many more toll proposals might come forward if lawmakers repealed the law outright? How many billions of dollars worth of construction could be financed in the decade ahead by investors, instead of taxpayers, if the projects faced no statutory hurdles?

Skeptical lawmakers and taxpayers are correct to assert that citizens should never face tolls on roads they’ve already paid for. But newly developed toll roads can help the valley get rid of gridlock. In the search for funding for future highway improvements, all options should be on the table.

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