Thursday, July 13, 2000 | 11:15 a.m.
WASHINGTON -- Political maneuvering by Nevada's delegation in Congress may have cleared the runway for a bill to establish a second Las Vegas area airport.
The Senate Energy and Water Committee today passed a bill that allows the Bureau of Land Management to sell about 6,600 acres of land to Clark County for a new airport 30 miles south of Las Vegas. The House passed the proposal in March and now the plan faces just two hurdles: a full Senate vote and President Clinton's approval.
"It's been an educational process to explain just how badly this was needed," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has negotiated behind the scenes to push the plan through the Senate.
"We're very excited that they (senators) are moving on that, because Nevada is truly going to be the winner here," said Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., who pushed the airport bill in the House. "It's been a hard-fought battle, but in the long run it's the right thing to do."
The bill authorizes the sale of the land in a dry lake bed in the Ivanpah Valley roughly 30 miles south of Las Vegas for fair market value to the county.
County officials would like to construct the Ivanpah airport to handle a predicted rise in tourist traffic in the coming years. They say McCarran International Airport could reach near capacity -- eventually 55 million passengers a year -- by 2008. The Ivanpah airport would open by 2010 at the earliest, officials say.
Wrangling by Nevada's small but vocal four-member delegation may have greased the bill for passage this year, the members said.
Reid last week took Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey on a tour of McCarran, explaining to her the need for a second airport. Reid also has spoken with Sens. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the top two members of the Energy and Water Committee, where the bill had stalled.
Reid cut a deal with Murkowski, a sometimes-foe of the Nevada senator.
"I had to help him with a little something (for Alaska)," said Reid, a member of the Appropriations Committee.
Reid also has talked to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who was concerned about the Mojave Nature Preserve, located just inside the California border about 15 miles from the planned airport site.
"That's resolved," Reid said.
Reid and Gibbons several weeks ago met to lay out a strategy to put pressure on key senators to pass the bill.
Gibbons also called Murkowski, despite their fierce differences on a proposal to ship nuclear waste to Nevada.
"He was very friendly on the (airport) issue," Gibbons said of Murkowski. "I expressed my concern that this was an opportunity that we needed to have now. McCarran Airport is running out of time."
A collection of environmental groups has battled the Ivanpah proposal, saying the airport posed a threat to the desert preserve. Sprawl created by the airport and airplane noise could harm plants and animals, environmentalists have said.
Several amendments have been added to the original form of the bill to make it more palatable to those with environmental concerns, including a provision that if the airport proposal does not pass environmental impact tests, the land will be sold back to the federal government. The amended bill also specifically states that the effects of the airport on the Mojave Preserve be considered.
"It's better than what we started with," said Marcia Argust, a lobbyist for the National Parks and Conservation Association. "You can be sure that local and national environmental groups will be bird-dogging the environmental (study) process."