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October 9, 2015

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Nevada turns to private firms to finance widening of I-15 in Las Vegas


Justin M. Bowen

Project Neon will widen Interstate 15 between the Spaghetti Bowl and Sahara Avenue and will add a new ramp to connect the U.S. 95 HOV lanes with the I-15 express lanes.

Click to enlarge photo

The state Transportation Board made an important decision Monday on the $1.6 billion Interstate 15 widening project in Las Vegas, agreeing that a private group or groups would finance, construct and maintain the roadway.

This is the first time the state has adopted this type of arrangement.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, board chairman, said the population and the traffic is increasing and "we need to move forward." Project Neon, which will widen I-15 from Sahara Avenue to the Spaghetti Bowl and make major changes to the arterial streets in the area, has been estimated to take 20 to 30 years.

Controller Kim Wallin, a board member, said this was the most financially prudent way to move ahead with the project, which is the most costly in state history.

Under the scenario, the state will issue an estimated $300 million in bonds to acquire right of ways and move utility lines. Groups, possibly some from foreign countries, would put together a financial package for the design, construction and operation in the future.

These groups would submit their bids to the Transportation Board that would choose the winner. And when the project is completed, the state would issue 35-year bonds to pay off the winning investment group.

Deputy Transportation Director Bill Hoffman told the board Monday, "We're new to this" but he compared it to financing a home.

The project would employ 4,500 to 5,000 workers.

There is also the possibility of the investment group getting a low-interest loan from the federal project.

The governor questioned whether the workers would come from Nevada. But transportation staff said the $300 million in bonds would involve federal funding that doesn't allow a 5 percent bid preference to Nevada firms.

Transportation Director Rudy Malfabon said design could start in 2014 and construction in 2015.

The board received assurance that it could pull out before a final contract is signed with the winning group.

Hoffman said other proposed methods of financing the project would eat into money slated for other jobs in the state. This way, the Transportation Department can continue to fund other projects and keep a $90 million reserve.

The proposed $300 million in state bonds for right-of-way acquisition must be approved by the legislative Interim Finance Committee. Sandoval told the transportation staff to start meeting individually with committee members to brief them on the details.

Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, board member, asked a series of questions about the financing. But she said later that the two weeks of each month she spends in Las Vegas she drives I-15 to downtown Las Vegas. She said she supports the plan "as long as we can pay for it."

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