Las Vegas Sun

October 4, 2015

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Equity, Nevada style

Gerald Gardner, the governor’s chief of staff, told the Nevada Senate Finance Committee on June 2 that he “disagrees that there is disparity in the distribution of (highway) construction money (between Clark County and the rest of the state).” Rudy Malfabon, head of Nevada’s Department of Transportation, echoed this claim and submitted data that showed a rough parity based on taxes paid in the “state highway construction funds in the past five years.” These misleading statements suggest the appearance of equity in state road construction money, ignore huge disparities in highway maintenance funds and exclude massive expenditures of federal dollars.

Gardner and Malfabon offered testimony in opposition to Senate Bill 322, a bill intended to reform NDOT governance, sponsored by Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. NDOT’s seven-member board dates to 1957 and is composed of four statewide elected officials (the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and controller) and three appointees — one each from Las Vegas, Reno and Elko, the three NDOT districts. Nevada is the only state to have a governor directly serve as chair of a DOT board.

In its original form, SB322 proposed to replace the antiquated and inequitable seven-member NDOT board with an 11-member board of experts that would be appointed by the governor based on the state’s population distribution, giving Clark County eight members, Reno two members, and Elko one member. That’s the “one person, one vote” principle of American democracy, but such a concept is apparently not seen as equitable in Nevada.

SB322 cleared the Senate Transportation Committee 5-0 but stalled in the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. A “compromise” left Southern Nevadans with a take-it-or-leave-it offer by the governor that added one new board member from Clark County, who replaced the attorney general, keeping the board at seven members with the governor remaining as chair. The bill passed and was signed into law this month.

Clark County can now boast that it doubled its voting power, from a single vote for more than 2 million residents to a vote for every 1 million residents. That’s compared with one vote for every 375,000 Northern Nevadans. Put another way, Clark County residents progressed from one-sixth the representation of a northerner on the NDOT board to one-third the representation. That’s equity, Nevada style.

Lost in the debate over unjust northern membership on the NDOT board is the debilitating lack of diverse expertise on transportation issues among board members. Southern Nevadans suffer the consequences every day, and the facts are striking. In 2010, Nevada received only $6.24 per person for “federal transit capital investment grants” compared with an $18.92 average for states in the southern Mountain West. Worse still, Nevada garnered a mere $7.64 per person in “federal transit formula grants” compared with a $39.79 average in the southern part of the Mountain West region.

When Lang raised this abysmal data before the Transportation Committee, Malfabon asserted that this argument was irrelevant because it is illegal to mix federal “railroad” and highway money. Nonsense. States across the nation have pursued this option since the 1980s. Arizona, for example, is funding the extension of the metro light rail system into downtown Mesa in this manner.

Malfabon also described potential light rail projects in and around Clark County and the Las Vegas Strip, for the benefit of 2 million residents and 40 million annual visitors, as a “county issue.” Apparently, NDOT need not concern itself with the state’s core industry and the primary contributor to the state’s general fund.

Southern Nevada transportation issues never seem to rise to the level of those in the north. Virtually all our transportation issues are “county issues” to NDOT. This is another example of Nevada-style equity.

Consider federal transportation money — a subject that NDOT does not provide much direct information on although it represents an enormous amount of investment in the state. The U.S. Census reports that Nevada allocated Washoe County residents $1,664 per person in total “federal formula-based aid to the states” in 2010 while Clark County received a paltry $772 per person. That’s an $892 difference per person. Transportation funding, along with health, education and social services, constitute the biggest components of federal formula aid. If Clark County were funded at the same level as Washoe in 2010, it would have added $1.75 billion in funding to Southern Nevada, or about the project cost of the Bruce Woodbury 215 Beltway, which was, not so ironically, built by the county.

Who decides where and how the federal money that comes to the state gets spent at the county level? State bureaucracies in Carson City such as NDOT make that call. How does Clark fare? Its residents receive less than half the federal formula aid per capita than people in Washoe, the state’s other large urban county.

Brookings Mountain West had detailed that a much bigger share of the federal money is spent in the northern road projects than their southern counterparts. A “Nevada Surface Transportation Factsheet” that compares funding sources for major transportation projects north versus south is available online at

Consider an often misunderstood fact: Major highways in Las Vegas are often toll roads while northern roads are essentially free “riders.”

Did we say toll roads? Where are the toll booths?

Well, Southern Nevada has toll roads without toll booths. Our tourists who stay at area hotels pay tolls. To fund the widening of Interstate 15, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was assessed $600 million. This money is collected via a “room tax.” Proposals to physically toll the tiny stretch of Interstate 11 that Nevada needs to build around Boulder City would mean that tourists from Arizona could pay a possible double toll — one at an actual booth and one at the virtual toll booth on their hotel room bill.

Las Vegas residents and businesses also pay tolls. The Interstate 215/Clark County Beltway and the Summerlin Parkway used hundreds of millions of dollars in “special improvement district” (SID) funds assessed as extra land taxes on homes and commercial buildings proximate to these “freeways.” There are tens of thousands of homeowners and businesses in these districts.

Again, no one throws quarters in a toll machine for every few miles of freeway traveled, but there are hefty SID assessments on property instead.

How many Northern Nevada residents are on the hook for Interstate 580 (actually a freeway) between Reno and Carson City? Is there a virtual or actual toll on the massive and unnecessary Galena Creek Bridge? Are there plans to create a toll to pay for the $167 million beltway now under construction around Carson City, the smallest and now dwindling U.S. metropolitan area?

Of course not. Equity, Nevada style, means toll roads south, free roads north. Why not? They have the — scratch that, our — votes.

Dr. Robert Lang is UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West and a professor of urban affairs. William Brown is assistant director of Brookings Mountain West.

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