REN — Focused the past two decades on new highway construction, transportation officials are now eying expanding bus transit routes, car pooling and other ride-sharing opportunities in the Reno-Sparks area to keep up with growth as tens of thousands of new workers head for Tesla Motors, Switch and other new employers in the future.
Regional planners already anticipated double-digit growth in the workforce over the next 20 years in a state rebounding from one of the biggest hits in a prolonged depression that followed a 66 percent population spurt from 1990 to 2000.
But the sudden ramp-ups at industrial parks north and east of the area accelerates pressure on a system where commuters are used to driving alone to work, usually much quicker than in most bigger cities.
“We didn’t know at the time it would be Tesla, but we anticipated there would be more building and more workers commuting out there,” said Rudy Malfabon, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation.
Expected eventually to employ 6,500, the electric-car maker is scheduled to begin manufacturing lithium batteries next year at its $5 billion gigafactory under construction at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center about 15 miles east of Sparks on U.S. Interstate 80.
Malfabon said the key is to keep the 20-year plan current and flexible enough to defer some projects in order to expedite others, like the completion of a $70 million route that was bumped up the list as part of a deal with Tesla. The route will connect I-80 south to U.S. Highway 50 east of Carson City.
“In Western states in general, growth can happen so quickly,” he said.
New efforts to keep pace are not unique to Nevada. The Associated Press analyzed decades of travel and population data suggesting many regions struggling with traffic congestion are likely to see it worsen as population increases.
In Washoe County, employment is forecast to grow 13.5 percent from 2015-2019, adding 34,741 jobs to the current workforce of 258,158, according to a draft report prepared for the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada.
The study projects a 15-percent gain over a five-county area — a gain of 52,370 jobs. It anticipates annual growth rates of 1.5 percent or more in Carson City, Douglas and Lyon counties, and a whopping 43.6 percent in Storey County, the new home of Tesla and Switch. Storey County should see its employment triple to 15,315, but most are expected to commute from Reno-Sparks and other areas.
Costly light rail isn’t feasible in the short term, so transportation officials are trying to promote alternatives for workers who drive to the Reno-Sparks area.
An estimated 78 percent of Reno-area drivers drove to work in 2013, the AP review found. That’s similar to the national average of roughly 76 percent in the 195 cities reviewed with populations over 100,000.
Also similar to the national average, roughly 1 in 10 commuters in Reno car pool. Transit travel accounts for only about 2 percent in Reno, compared to the national figure of about 5 percent.
The local Regional Transportation Commission is considering bus service to the I-80 industrial park, a costly prospect that is complicated because the site stretches more than 160 square miles.
That’s why commission officials and representatives of vRide, a private contractor that operates a ride-sharing platform with commuter vans, camped outside a sub shop near Tesla’s gate to promote shared rides.
“We have heard universally, not surprisingly, that transportation is a big issue for people working out here,” said Carol Perry, RTC’s trip-reduction specialist.
“The first thing they ask is, ‘How much will it cost and how long will it take?’” she said.
The median commute time in the Reno-Sparks area is nearly 22 minutes, compared with the national average of nearly 26 minutes, the research shows. Solo drivers take about 20.4 minutes and carpoolers nearly 27. The trip for the few bus riders is nearly twice as long, 49.6. The U.S. mean is 48.7.
VRide’s Ted Abeyta said he talked with employers at the industrial park who fear Tesla and Switch may “poach” their workers. He said many are considering offering ride-share assistance.
“After food, clothing and shelter, the next biggest expense is getting to work.”