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J. Patrick Coolican:

The Nevada way: A lawyer leads the transportation board

Updated Thursday, April 11, 2013 | 3:48 p.m.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

The next time you need heart surgery, we’ll send over a lawyer to open you up. How would that strike you?

Ridiculous, right? So why is the attorney general on the board of the Nevada Department of Transportation?

I have nothing against Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. She seems quietly effective. With all of her work busting banks for the foreclosure mess, I don't see where she finds the time for transportation issues, as I’m sure she would probably acknowledge.

In fact, here’s the current makeup of the board, as determined by an archaic statute: The governor is the chairman, and he is joined by the lieutenant governor; the attorney general; the elected controller; and one member each from Southern Nevada, northwestern Nevada and northeastern Nevada.

Let’s think of all the ways this is completely screwy. Although I guess I can see some rationale for the governor (who also happens to be an attorney) chairing the board, or maybe the alleged accounting and fiscal expertise of the elected controller, I can’t for the life of me understand why the lieutenant governor or the attorney general are on the board deciding where to spend transportation dollars.

Then, note the parity. Elko, Las Vegas and Reno each get a board member.

Because, sure, our transportation needs are roughly equal to that of Reno and the rural counties, right?

There’s legislation — Senate Bill 322 — to rectify this situation, and lawmakers should pass it.

The bill would create an 11-member board, with eight members from the south, matching our population advantage, and three from the rest of the state.

This would prevent the longstanding inequity whereby the south does not get its fair share of transportation dollars.

I’ve written about the half-billion-dollar boondoggle that is Interstate 580, the unnecessary road from Reno to Carson City.

Recall that we built our own 215 Beltway project primarily with our own local money. It is said to be the only freeway-grade project in the United States financed that way.

And who can forget NDOT's original list of projects slated for 2009 federal stimulus dollars, which included just $19 million out of $140 million for Clark County?

Then there are current projects, including something called the Carson City Freeway, which for more than $90 million will relieve non-existent traffic in the capital city. In Elko, which is currently flush with mining money, the Daily Free Press reports a $17 million project, all spent on roads within city limits, including a “Passage through Time”-themed aesthetic renovation.

(Speechless.)

To be fair, the Nevada Department of Transportation reports that for this fiscal year, Clark County will receive 80 percent of the $357 million for new projects and 80 percent of $160 million for other projects. (Remember, not only do we have more than 70 percent of the population, we also host 40 million visitors every year — people, who, you know, pay the tab.)

Also, that hard-won parity is new — from fiscal 2008-12, Clark County received 64 percent of the project money, well below what we should have based on population and tourism.

(Southern Nevada legislators: Support this or be branded a traitor — I’m looking at you, Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson.)

Just as important as equity, however, is expertise. A larger board made up of more private sector professionals, as opposed to elected officials, would lend us important expertise in areas such as logistics and the needs of the tourist corridor.

Plus, we would be more likely to have at least one member and perhaps more with a mass transit orientation as opposed to just roadbuilding.

Sandoval and his Department of Transportation are opposed to the bill. I’m not exaggerating when I say the thrust of the argument is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Rudy Malfabon, the department director, told a Senate committee last week that the board has become more transparent in recent years, including approving all contracts worth more than $300,000 while taking a more active role in governance of transportation projects.

“NDOT receives much more interest in project selection, approval of contracts and development of policy than in the past. We feel that the system is working,” Malfabon said, according to his written testimony.

“All of the members of the board have done a good job,” the governor told my colleague Cy Ryan.

Nevada: Where everyone deserves a trophy.

Neighboring states, predictably, don’t have this ridiculous setup. In Arizona, Utah and Colorado, the majority of the board members come from specific districts, and they include no elected officials.

And, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver all have far more sophisticated transportation systems than Las Vegas.

Maybe we're the geniuses and they’re the ones who don't know what they're doing.

Yeah, let’s go with that theory.

Update: Roberson called me to say he supports the bill. I’m glad to hear it.

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  1. Alaska and Nevada transportation politics have much in common.

  2. Well rumble strip the rubber right off my tires...

    Nevadan's are demanding representation rather than what passes for it today...