Sunday, April 14, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
As Nevada continues to grow, we need to revise and reform the way we govern the Nevada Department of Transportation. The state is simply too big to continue administering its surface transportation as it did when Nevada was among the least populated places in the U.S.
There are some who still claim that Nevada is a small state, and to those folks I ask: How many “small states” have metropolitan areas with more than 2 million residents? Nevada now lies in a cluster of a half-dozen similarly sized states with a population of 2.7 million to 3.1 million residents (all with six electoral votes) that includes Iowa, Utah, Mississippi, Kansas and Arkansas. The current scale and future growth of metro Las Vegas — which is now a bi-state, three-county, census-designated “combined statistical area” with 2.25 million residents — requires a board of transportation experts who can tackle our big-city problems.
NDOT’s current board includes Nevada’s governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and controller. Three districts — Las Vegas, Reno and Elko — also have appointed industry representatives, making it a seven-member committee. Thus, the board, as now configured, has more elected officials than transportation experts. In addition, Las Vegas, a region that is home to nearly three-quarters of all Nevadans, has just one official voice representing its interests on the board.
Senate Bill 322, which is now before the transportation committee, proposes that we shift to the more common governor-appointed board that consists of transportation experts and industry representatives, as are now found in the neighboring Mountain West states of Arizona, Colorado and Utah. I also propose expanding the board by four members to both draw in more people with surface transportation knowledge and better represent Las Vegas as the state’s dominant economic and demographic growth engine. With 11 members, the board would have one voting member for every 250,000 Nevada residents. That translates into eight board members for the Las Vegas metropolitan area, two for the Reno-Carson City metros and one representative for rural Nevada.
The proposed NDOT board is based on residents and does not reflect Southern Nevada’s enormous tourist population, which averages over 100,000 people a day and can spike to 300,000 and even 400,000 when major conventions and events come to town. At its peak, Las Vegas can add the equivalent in tourists of the entire Reno metropolitan area population on top of the more than 2 million residents who rely on the region’s transit systems.
And greater Las Vegas continues to grow — even during its deepest recession ever. According to the latest census figures, Clark County gained nearly 50,000 residents from April 1, 2010 (the day of the census official head count), and July 1, 2012 (the date of the last census estimate). That figure nearly matches the Carson City metropolitan area, which the census finds is actually declining in population this decade. As we continue to recover, Las Vegas will see its population jump by 50,000 people per year, and by 2020, our combined statistical area could include Washington County in Southwest Utah with more than 130,000 residents, according to Robert Lang of Brookings Mountain West. Projections show that by 2020, the Las Vegas Valley may exceed 2.75 million people and form a tri-state region.
We must reform how we govern transportation investments to reflect the growth, use, complexity and scale of Nevada’s globally reaching major metropolis. Southern Nevadans are engaged in discussions and planning for a series of crucial and complex transportation projects, ranging from high-speed rail to Southern California, the Interstate 11 connection to Phoenix, the introduction of a light rail system linking the Las Vegas Strip, building major events complexes, the Convention Center expansion and upgrade, and deferred I-15 and Las Vegas Beltway expansion and improvements. Southern Nevadans are ready, waiting and able to lead transportation efforts. We need our state government to provide the mechanisms for success, not “roadblocks” to inaction.
Mesa, Ariz., Mayor Scott Smith summed up our transportation challenges nicely at a planning forum for the recently initiated Southern Nevada Strong project. Smith, who is next in line to head the U.S. Conference of Mayors and will assume the office at a June meeting at Mandalay Bay, marveled at the inconsistencies in our transportation infrastructure. He noted that we have a wonderful airport with global connections that the rest of the Mountain West envies, but our surface transportation system is a mess.
Smith, a frequent visitor to Las Vegas, observed that it sometimes takes less time for him to fly here from Phoenix than it does to get a taxi and arrive at a Strip resort. It’s a funny anecdote, with deadly serious consequences for Las Vegas. Unraveling this mess will take talent, and our efforts will certainly be aided by a new NDOT governance structure that appoints eight expert members from Southern Nevada.
Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, is the chairman of the state Senate Transportation Committee.