The board of directors of the Nevada Department of Transportation Thursday voted to back a proposed demonstration project that would make two lanes of I-15 into toll lanes operated by a private company.
The idea, according to NDOT Director Susan Martinovich is to test whether public-private partnerships will work as a tool to get more highways built in Nevada.
But the initial project won't actually increase roadway capacity, because it doesn't include building any additional lanes. Instead, Martinovich said the existing High Occupancy Vehicle lanes would be converted to toll lanes.
Gov. Jim Gibbons, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and others praised the concept as a way to get new road lanes built fast when the state itself can't afford them.
But NDOT board member Paul Morabito said the state must first agree to the philosophical concept behind the public-private partnerships which he said is to"allow a public use to be owned by private industry."
"What happens when those companies go bankrupt? You're going to allow fundamental infrastructure to be owned by private groups."
And Morabito questioned whether the proposal would create a regional tax on southern Nevadans using the freeway.
He said he believes public-private partnerships work but that everything must be done in the open with full explanations to the public.
Gibbons said the project wouldn't create a tax issue.
"When you do this, you're not creating a regional tax. You're creating a payment process for the construction of roads."
Gibbons was backed by Carole Vilardo of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, who said it's not a tax but "an optional fee for service that's a matter of consumer choice."
Krolicki said he is comfortable with the idea but agrees that everything must be done in the open with the treasurer's office helping to review any financing plans.
He and Gibbons said asking lawmakers to consider the concept will allow the state to see whether it works in Nevada.
"It's a very valuable option," said NDOT board member Tom Fransway.
But Controller Kim Wallin said all methods of financing roadways should be considered. She pointed out that companies in these public-private partnerships typically make a 13-15 percent profit from these arrangements. The state, Wallin said, is able to issue bonds right now for just 4.3 percent interest, a much lower cost.
Some lawmakers suggested in the 2007 session that maybe the state should do toll roads without private corporations involved to get more bang for the buck.
The board also approved the drafting of proposed legislation to make the demonstration project possible. That includes changing the Nevada law which now prohibits toll roads and authorizing the use of video cameras and electronics to police the toll lanes.
In addition, Martinovich told the board NDOT is asking to give law enforcement broader authority to issue tickets based on video camera evidence as well as to allow police to stop and ticket people not wearing seat belts. Existing law allows a seat belt citation only after the driver is stopped for another infraction.
Lawmakers have rejected those proposed laws in the past.
Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.