Las Vegas Sun

October 15, 2018

Currently: 63° — Complete forecast

Road blocks: Despite new funding Vegas road projects fall behind

Five years have passed since the Nevada Legislature enacted a mix of taxes and fees known as Question 10 to fund major transportation work in Clark County.

Since then, mass transit and road projects worth more than $500 million have been completed, with minimal impact on Southern Nevada's chronic traffic congestion.

But those same five years have seen unprecedented growth in the Las Vegas Valley.

Imagine life on the streets without Question 10.

Since the start of collections, Clark County and the other governmental entities that get a slice of Question 10 revenue have received $399.5 million as of April 30.

By selling more than $500 million in bonds against future revenue, officials have stretched Question 10's buying power into the next century. But they also have committed most of the revenues collected during the next 20 years to paying off that debt at an interest rate that will double the original amount over time.

Still, Clark County Public Works officials have a list of nearly $1 billion in unfunded projects through 2001.

That shouldn't surprise people who remember Commissioner Bruce Woodbury saying the valley was $2 billion behind on transportation when he was selling Question 10 to the public in 1990.

Changing priorities

Now, critics of the Master Transportation Plan are mounting an assault to change funding priorities set in motion years ago, even threatening to withhold revenue spent on the beltway.

The assault is being led by Las Vegas City Councilman Matthew Callister and Mayor Jan Laverty Jones, who criticize the county's decision to commit the bulk of Question 10 revenue to the southern and western portions of the beltway when more pressing problems exist along the U.S. 95 corridor in the northwest.

Callister is especially incensed that development tax money from city residents is helping to fund the beltway that goes through Henderson and the southern portion of the valley, calling it a "road to nowhere" and an "asphalt invitation" for hundreds of thousands of future residents.

Callister also has criticized the county for preparing a road that will benefit Summerlin South, the massive expansion of the Summerlin master-planned community by Howard Hughes Corp.

"It's one thing to spend county money for a quarter of a million people," Callister said. "To do it on my voters' dollars is an inappropriate use of that money."

The City Council agreed, voting unanimously last month to have its attorneys see if Question 10 money raised in the city for the beltway can be withheld.

Woodbury says the priorities were set long ago, and recommends that everyone work together to solve the valley's transportation needs rather than fight over who gets what share of the revenue.

"The last time I checked, everybody in each of the cities and in the unincorporated area of the county was represented by a county commissioner," Woodbury said.

Nonetheless, Woodbury admits the sudden population boom in the northwest might require officials to redraw their priorities. The County Commission has already voted to restructure the beltway plan to put more money into the northwest.

Long-term planning

The Master Transportation Plan was established by the Regional Transportation Commission, a group of eight elected officials from Clark County, Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City and Mesquite.

In the late 1980s, the RTC commissioned a study to determine what projects would be needed to keep pace with growing traffic demands into the next century. Meanwhile, a blue-ribbon committee of local business and civic leaders came up with a plan to fund all these projects.

"Just because there are problems in one part of town that are perceived to be urgent doesn't mean you should stop all the planning for the future," Woodbury said. "We can't stop everything else because the entire community has a transportation problem, not just that one area. This beltway was the progress that was promised, and featured prominently to get Question 10 passed."

That plan was sold to voters on the November 1990 ballot, was made law by the 1991 Legislature, and the tax revenues started rolling in on July 1, 1991.

Clark County has gotten 48 percent of the money -- about $193 million. The RTC is next at $173 million, or 43 percent, followed by the airport with $33.7 million, or 8 percent.

The city of Las Vegas receives about $1 million a year from its room tax revenues, or $4.9 million since the start of Question 10.

That revenue has been parlayed into $10.25 million in bond revenue, of which $6 million has gone toward improving Las Vegas Boulevard, Fourth Street and Fremont Street, city Finance Director Steve Houchens said.

Another $3 million has been used on street improvements, Houchens added.

"A million dollars a year doesn't get you a whole lot," Houchens said.

Woodbury said the city could have spent that money on the U.S. 95 corridor that Callister says is in such dire need of attention.

"It has to have some benefit to the payers," Houchens countered. "There has to be a nexus between the use of these dollars and benefits to the hotel industry."

City's beef

Considering how much the city kicks in, Callister thinks it should have more say in how that money is spent. Callister sees the RTC as the "opportunity for a forum" on how Question 10 money is spent.

"This is the only opportunity for us to sit together and ... make tough decisions on prioritizations and expenditures," Callister said.

City Public Works Director Richard Goecke shares Callister's perspective.

"The city should have more control over the revenue collected in the city," Goecke said. "At the very least, we should have some roundtable discussions about how the money is spent."

RTC Director Kurt Weinrich allowed that it may be time to take another look at some priorities, since "the representatives have changed faces since then, and maybe some of the ideas."

Woodbury says decisions were made years ago by the other cities to let the county control certain taxes. He also points out that when Callister served in the state Legislature in 1991, he voted for the legislation authorizing the county to spend specific taxes on the beltway.

And as a member of the RTC, Callister recently voted to approve the 1995-98 Transportation Improvement Plan, which identifies the construction program for the southern part of the beltway.

"The beltway is going to benefit everybody," Woodbury said. "The only people who would have a legitimate complaint about the beltway would be the people in Mesquite or Laughlin."

The county has bonded $400 million against Question 10 revenue, most of which is earmarked for the beltway.

So far, $217.6 million has been laid out for the beltway, according to Randy Walker, the county's finance director.

But city officials believe any money raised in the city from the development tax should be diverted from the beltway to relieving congestion in the U.S. 05 corridor in the northwest part of town.

"It's conceivable the county has some discretion, except we've sold bonds against those revenues and entered into numerous contracts with future sections of the beltway," Woodbury said.

Contracts have been signed for the beltway through Henderson to U.S. 95, and the county is getting ready to go out to bid on the section from I-15 to Decatur Boulevard, Woodbury said.

"I think we're locked in out to Decatur," Woodbury said. "We would be throwing a lot of money away to change now."

Beltway changes

However, the County Commission has altered its plans for the beltway west of Decatur by agreeing to build a frontage road, saving about $60 million that could be used to conduct studies and buy right of way for the northwest part of the beltway.

Woodbury also points out that much of the $50 million generated from the gas tax that goes to the RTC for road improvements is "distributed for projects to all the entities all over the county."

Also, the $123 million raised for mass transit benefits county and city residents alike, he said.

The county's Public Works Department has used its room tax money to build the $92 million Desert Inn Super Arterial, the Tropicana Avenue flyover ramp at I-15, and the $11 million Russell Road interchange.

The airport has bonded $60 million against jet fuel tax revenue, said Ross Johnson, director of finance at McCarran. For every $2 million collected for current projects, $6 million goes to pay off the bond debt, he said.

Most of the money -- more than $30 million -- paid for the design and construction of the airport connector, while $28 million went to land acquisition for southern access, he said.

The interest on those bonds is $41 million, Johnson said.

Selling bonds now ties up future revenue, but it's the only way to raise money for large public works projects like the beltway and the Desert Inn Super Arterial, Johnson said.

City officials have also criticized the county for having hundreds of millions in unused transportation funds.

Walker said by the end of fiscal 1995-96, the county will have spent about $233 million on all projects, and spent another $77.5 million on bond payments.

The available cash at the start of the next fiscal year is projected around $300 million, between bond proceeds and capital funds, he said.

"It's all allocated," Walker said.

In fact, county public works has an additional list of unfunded projects that exceeds $800 million.

"They're spending it basically as fast as they can," Walker said. "The demand far outstrips the money available."