Wednesday, June 23, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Southern Nevada lost a visionary and passionate advocate Monday with the death of Robert E. Lang.
Lang, the director of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute at UNLV, spent just 11 years in Las Vegas before his death at age 62. Yet in that short time, his work left a strong imprint on the progress of the region. The Vegas Chamber, which collaborated extensively with Lang and Brookings Mountain West on strategic planning, was effusive in its praise of him: “Dr. Robert Lang forever transformed Southern Nevada.”
In broad terms, Lang’s major contribution can be found in this simple idea: Lang looked at Las Vegas and Nevada and saw a latent greatness that could be unleashed with forward-thinking policy. Therefore, he set about working on those policies and convincing people that Nevada didn’t have to settle for anything less than world-class status.
Lang arrived in Las Vegas championing a strategic plan that focused on a handful of vital needs — a major medical school to improve health care for local residents and spawn a medical research and development economic sector; a major-league sports arena; a focused effort to transform UNLV into a top-tier research institution; completion of Interstate 11 from Phoenix through Las Vegas; and development of a light rail system to serve the tourism corridor.
The community needed this kind of thinking. Lang showed a special focus on core shortcomings that can trap a state in second-tier status if not fixed — subpar access to high-level health care, our lack of economic diversification and a struggling education system at both the K-12 and postgraduate levels.
Today, Las Vegas is home to Allegiant Stadium and the Las Vegas Raiders, and work is underway on a new classroom building that will allow the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV to reach its full capacity of 120 students per year. And in 2018, UNLV achieved Carnegie R-1 research status, the same plane as such major institutions as Yale, Harvard and Stanford.
Meanwhile, Southern Nevada has completed its portion of the I-11 expansion, although the highway remains unfinished in Arizona and to the north of Las Vegas.
Elsewhere, Lang worked with state and regional officials on economic development and planning, helping create the framework behind the state tax incentives that drew such employers as Tesla to Nevada.
He also was outspoken in calling out inequities between Northern and Southern Nevada in terms of state funding for higher education, infrastructure and other needs. In media appearances and behind the scenes, he and his team challenged state lawmakers and the overseers of the state’s higher education system to invest more in the Las Vegas Valley. It was a fair demand, given that our region is the economic driver for the entire state — what’s good for Las Vegas is definitely good for Nevada. Today, the state’s contribution of $20 million toward the medical school building is a sign of progress on that front, and a longstanding imbalance between state funding for UNLV and UNR has evened out in recent years, although it still favors UNR.
“I think one of his greatest contributions to the valley is he elevated our thinking," said North Las Vegas City Manager Ryann Juden, who worked extensively with Lang on economic development initiatives. “He took the natural instincts of many of our business leaders to think ‘Vegas big,’ and he structured data around transformative ideas and ushered in a greater consciousness around our potential. He used direct comparison with inequalities with the North to get us off the couch and make things happen.”
Lang didn’t singlehandedly bring about all of this progress, of course, but he was a visible and highly involved leader.
Born in Brooklyn and raised mostly in New Jersey, he was the first member of his immediate family to attend college. After earning bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at Rutgers, Lang had a leadership position at Fannie Mae in Washington, D.C., where he became connected with Brookings Mountain West’s parent organization, the Brookings Institution. He maintained that connection as professor and chair of urban planning at Virginia Tech before becoming director of the newly formed Brookings Mountain West in 2010.
Here, Lang set himself apart through his strategic thinking, his skill as a researcher and his animated — sometimes fiery — personality.
As those close to him would acknowledge, he wasn’t bashful about butting heads with those he justifiably saw as impediments to the progress of Southern Nevada and, by extension, the state. He was particularly critical of the Nevada Board of Regents and Nevada System of Higher Education, which oversee the state’s universities and colleges, and Northern-centric state lawmakers.
But as Juden pointed out, the region needed a point person to galvanize around, and Lang was willing to serve that role.
Now comes the question of who will step up and finish the work that he helped start.
Last week, the Sun set up an interview with him to look back on his time in Las Vegas and get his ideas about moving forward. Sadly, we were unable to have this conversation. But based on our many past interactions with him and on input from his colleagues, we believe the following would have been among his priorities:
• Enhanced public transportation in Southern Nevada, particularly light rail connecting McCarran International Airport and the Las Vegas Strip.
Lang, whose academic expertise was in urban planning, was emphatic about the need for light rail, and he was spot on. Regional traffic experts agree that we need to grow beyond the autocentric, Rat Pack-era thinking that yielded our current traffic system, and in reality we don’t have any choice but to do so. The solution to our overcapacitated roads isn’t to build more lanes for traffic — that simply attracts more traffic. And on the Strip, building out Las Vegas Boulevard is impossible, as there’s no room for more lanes for cars. What’s needed is a high-volume people mover — light rail — that will allow visitors to move quickly and conveniently to and from the airport and up and down the Strip. Further, we need expansions to other parts of the valley which, along with construction of park-and-ride lots, would provide Strip workers with a convenient and inexpensive way to get to and from work.
Our region blew a chance for a start-up system in 2019 when, despite heavy public support for a light rail system along Maryland Parkway through downtown, it opted for a cheaper bus rapid transit option. Lang, in an interview this past April with Nevada Public Radio, urged officials to revive the plan and present it to the Biden administration, which would be much more receptive to it than the previous administration.
“It is ridiculous to think that we’re going to pass on the Biden once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.
• Aggressive advocacy for UNLV. Lang and his team were outspoken in revealing funding inequities between UNLV and UNR, and challenging leaders to raise UNLV to an equal plane. Lang frequently compared UNLV to Arizona State University in terms of its potential as a research-focused academic and economic driver for an urban community. But poor management by the Nevada Board of Regents and the Nevada System of Higher Education, which oversee the state’s colleges, has resulted in leadership incontinuity and funding problems that has hindered UNLV’s progress.
• More Southern-focused economic development efforts by the state. To date, those efforts have overwhelmingly benefited the Reno/Sparks area — Tesla’s gigafactory, Apple’s data center, Amazon’s fulfillment center, etc. Southern Nevada has seen some projects, but relatively few.
Lang’s time in Las Vegas ended far too soon, but we’re a stronger community because of him. And if we continue following his lead, we’ll become more vibrant yet.