Regional Transportation Commission
Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019 | 2 a.m.
After a decade in which Las Vegas rose from the depths of the Great Recession to a full recovery, this is an opportune time to look at our future and our immediate past.
Five years ago, at the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce’s annual Preview Las Vegas event, Robert Lang proposed a five-point agenda of infrastructure assets for the region to complete by 2020.
Brookings Mountain West determined those five goals by comparing Las Vegas to Orlando, Fla. — our region’s true peer metropolitan area because both metro economies center on tourism and are the only regions in the U.S. to exceed 2 million residents with hospitality as their primary economic engine.
The plan was to catch up with Orlando by developing five key infrastructure assets: a UNLV School of Medicine; UNLV as a Carnegie R1 university; Interstate 11 completed from Las Vegas to the Arizona border; a world-class stadium and an expanded and improved public convention center; and the beginnings of a regional rail-based transit system.
Orlando had these five infrastructures; Las Vegas did not. The chamber adopted these goals and put its political weight behind securing the required resources.
At Preview Las Vegas 2019, held Jan. 24, Lang was happy to report that four out of five of infrastructure assets are complete or currently under construction. The only infrastructure asset that remains in a planning phase is rail-based transit — and here the Regional Transportation Commission recently received a $300,000 grant from the federal government to study the construction of a rail line between the airport and downtown Las Vegas along Maryland Parkway.
In just five years, Las Vegas closed its gap with Orlando on four key infrastructures. In the case of the stadium and convention center, it will soon arguably outperform Orlando.
With those accomplishments in hand, Lang proposed five updated regional goals to develop by 2030. In this instance, we examined Phoenix as a comparator.
The five new goals represent the next step in Southern Nevada’s emergence as a major metropolitan area and would place it among the top 25 regions in the U.S. They are as follows:
1. Place UNLV among the leading 60 U.S. research universities. UNLV is now among the top 120, based on the recent Carnegie classification, but we can move UNLV to the top half of major research universities over the next 10 years. To do that, UNLV must expand its research and development output and graduate school enrollment. UNLV now educates about 5,000 graduate students. By 2030, the school should have 10,000 — about half of Arizona State’s current number.
UNLV needs to do two things to rise to the top 60 research universities. First, it needs to expand its physical plant by having the 42 acres of land it now owns off Tropicana Avenue become the site of a graduate and R&D-focused campus. Second, UNLV needs to adopt ASU’s enterprise model, in which the state’s system office and regents stop constraining who UNLV can partner with and how it may grow. ASU President Michael Crow recently told us that ASU could not exist under Nevada’s “weird governance structure.” If we want UNLV to be like ASU (and we really should), then we need to unshackle the school from dysfunctional and at times destructive governance and administrative systems.
2. Redo the Clark County School District’s funding formula. The good news for CCSD is that its bold new leader, Jesus Jara, has pledged to advocate for our schools to get their fair share from the state. At the moment, we are working under the Nevada Plan, devised in the 1960s, when Nevada had fewer residents than North Dakota — and even less diversity. Today, Nevada is heading to the top 30 states in terms of population, and Clark County is so diverse that according to the Pew Research Center, it matches the nation’s projected demographic profile for 2060.
The key fix for the funding formula is to ensure our student needs are fully incorporated into the allocation and that state funds for education are based on where students in need attend school. Urban districts such as Clark would see a bump in resources even if we did not increase total expenditures on K-12 education (which we should).
3. Push for true economic diversification. Las Vegas continues its remarkable job of expanding and deepening the hospitality sector. In fact, most of the region’s economic diversification occurs within this sector, such as adding ecotourism to the mix of activities. But Las Vegas continues to be shortchanged by the state when it comes to investing resources such as tax incentives to induce tech firms to the area.
The Brookings Institution’s 2011 state economic report suggested that business ecosystems provided a competitive advantage to Las Vegas due to the presence of large data centers such as Switch communications. The state, however, chose to offer Switch economic incentives if it constructed a facility and created 100 jobs in Storey County, where it is now building the world’s largest data storage complex. That’s right: The state used Southern Nevada’s tax capacity to incentivize a Las Vegas-born tech firm to move to Northern Nevada. According to the Brookings data, the state invested about two-thirds of all its tax incentives in tiny Storey County, which has less than 4,000 residents and is over 90 percent white. Nevada invested less than a quarter of such incentives in Clark County.
It is long past the time for the state to turn its attention to investing in Southern Nevada’s economic diversification.
4. Keep expanding the hospitality sector. Diversification outside hospitality is good for the region — it builds resilience and takes some of the tax and employment pressure off of tourism. But the first business of Las Vegas is and should remain hospitality. We can never take our eyes off the ball in tourism because places such as Orlando are constantly innovating in this sector and are always looking to relocate conventions and events away from Southern Nevada — think of their attempt to grab the National Finals Rodeo a few years back. Las Vegas must remain on the cutting edge of the hospitality experience and, fortunately, our innovative companies are always pushing the envelope in this area. The partnership between Sands and Madison Square Garden on the new 360-foot-tall MSG Sphere Las Vegas is one such example. Las Vegas is America’s global headquarters for tourism, and this world-class asset cannot be diminished.
Like Houston in oil, Las Vegas commands a global hospitality empire that is so expert that a large share of our regional tourist economy consists of wealth returned to our region due to this global hospitality industry. Houston recognizes its unique role in the energy sector and has cultivated a pipeline of expert labor that keeps it ahead of global competitors. Las Vegas needs to do the same for its tourism workforce. That starts with improving K-12 education and making sure UNLV remains the leading school in hospitality management. Southern Nevada has an enormous stake in ensuring the resources are available to do both.
5. Finally, we need to develop a regional rail-based transit system. Las Vegas is already choking on vehicular traffic around the tourist zone — and we have yet to finish Las Vegas Stadium or host a Super Bowl. Rail transit exists throughout the urban world because it provides congestion relief for densely built spaces. Until now, the most densely built corridor without rail-based transit was Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. But now a subway — or heavy rail transit — is being built under Wilshire. That makes Las Vegas Boulevard from Tropicana to Sahara avenues the most high-rise, densely built space in America not served by rail-based transit. And don’t think that some next-generation driverless car will solve the congestion problem. The issue is geometric — too little space and too many vehicles clog up streets regardless of whether they are autonomous vehicles or people driven.
Light rail in Tempe, Ariz., has transformed the city so much that it is now adding a separate streetcar line to connect to the existing system. When completed in 2021, the system will link most of Tempe to ASU and its campus-based transit center. Phoenix is now so far ahead of Las Vegas in terms of rail-based transit that it is into a second generation of system development, with more additions planed for the future. We need to find the resources and the will build a comparable system.
The economic sustainability of Las Vegas depends upon the development of these assets. Our long-term growth and our quality of life rest in the balance.
Las Vegas always proves itself resilient and ready to meet any challenge. We know what this region can accomplish when our collective energies are harnessed to meet an opportunity.
Just watch what happens next.
Robert Lang is executive director of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute at UNLV. He is also a professor in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. William Brown Jr. is UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.