Carson City road repair and construction finances will be front and center throughout 2016 as views take shape over gasoline tax indexing.
Voters on Nov. 8 in Carson City and other counties can decide whether to follow the lead of Washoe and Clark counties, dominated by Reno in the former case and Las Vegas in the latter. Indexing in those counties ties gas taxes to inflationary trends.
“This is a big problem in many areas,” city Transportation Manager Patrick Pittenger said last week as he talked about a shortage of the need for revenue and deteriorating streets.
His point was Carson City wasn’t alone in needing additional road funds and those familiar with the problem aren’t kidding themselves they shouldn’t be “expecting a helping hand from Washington, D.C.”
Pittenger said if local voters approve gas tax indexing it would raise the tax by about 3 cents a gallon and yield $60 million over a decade for streets and roads.
He said city streets and roads are in just fair condition, lagging Washoe County and Reno to the north, but they are in better shape than Douglas County to the south.
City data shows more than $50 million was spent on maintenance the past 11 years, but the city’s maintenance efforts have fallen behind more each year.
Whether voters support indexing to help bridge the gap, however, comes against the backdrop of a presidential election year in which talk of taxes can rile some people and in a community where one man is crusading against past gas tax uses.
Paul McGrath, a Marine veteran and former Carson City sheriff, will tell anyone who will listen a nickel hike in the gas tax years ago has been misused.
“We have been cheated and lied to since 2004,” McGrath said last week, and he will take his case to the Board of Supervisors Thursday when a presentation on streets, roads, maintenance and pertinent finances is scheduled.
Lisa Helget, a 2014 candidate for city supervisor and former state employee who worked on construction issues with the Nevada Department of Transportation, said she had talked with McGrath.
She said though she knows the need for road revenue, she intends to spurn indexing due to lack of trust regarding city decisions about spending.
“I’m going to vote no on it,” she said. “I don’t trust the city to dedicate those funds. I do not think all the funds will be used for the intended purpose.”
A vocal opponent during her race for supervisor of the downtown Carson Street makeover that will decrease vehicular lanes and remove the median, she said the money on that streetscape facelift would have been better spent upgrading roads.
Despite Helget’s position, Professor Fred Lokken, a political scientist at Truckee Meadows Community College, said studies show gas taxes can be an easy sell as a needed user source of revenue.
“It is one of the most un-contentious taxes,” he said. He also said Democrats may turn out well in this presidential election year and everybody drives and hates potholes.
”I think that this election year would be a well-time year,” he said, meaning a good year for indexing supporters to have the issue on the ballot.
McGrath, who took his case last year to District Attorney Jason Woodbury, didn’t get the legal opinion he had hoped for but that didn’t deter him. He still contends money was misused by the city’s Regional Transportation Commission (RTC).
McGrath’s underlying complaint, which is included in a petition, deals with deteriorating roads in his area.
The petition seeks repairs for streets, the RTC’s actions be rectified and an internal audit be done “to account for freeway tax dollars used for ‘other’ projects.” McGrath also is asking those feeling as he does to attend Thursday’s board meeting.
It’s McGrath’s view the money was for the I-580 freeway or roads around it. The freeway will wind past his area to intersect with U.S. 395S just north of Fuji Park.
McGrath was asked whether, given his complaint, he would support gas tax indexing when he voted in November. He said he may if the city’s governing board rectifies the problem he sees.
“If the board corrects the problem, I’ll support what they want,” he said. “I just want them to fix the damn roads.” He said, though, if oversight for RTC and Public Works isn’t altered, it’s like “giving a bank robber a blank check to return for more.”
Pittenger and some other city officials, meanwhile, have in the past moved beyond the McGrath complaint based on the DA’s legal opinion. They concentrate instead on making a case for indexing to deal with future needs.
“When people say 10 years ago the roads were better,” said Pittenger, “they’re right.” He also said the state has handed 20 more miles of roads over to the city.
He said the recession and other factors — federal inaction, more fuel efficient cars and the like — chipped away at maintenance funds available as “multiple things have come together to worsen the problem.”
Pittenger said city residents when they vote on indexing should understand the money approved could only be used here for improvements. “Asphalt pavements are only meant to last so long,” he said.