Proposed highways amendment questioned | NevadaAppeal.com

Proposed highways amendment questioned

The Blue Ribbon Task Force investigating long-term funding and financing of highway projects in Nevada was told Thursday the highway fund itself is exempt from a proposed tax and spending amendment being pushed for the November ballot.

The proposed amendment would cap governmental spending increases at no more than inflation plus population growth.

NDOT Director Jeff Fontaine said he was assured by its sponsor Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, that federal funding and revenue sources including the Highway Fund are not under the cap and can increase beyond those limits.

Carole Vilardo of the Nevada Taxpayer’s Association agreed, but cautioned she doesn’t believe transportation totally escapes the limits.

“I’m not sure you’re exempt from the voting requirement,” she said referring to the mandate which would require all bonds and any tax increase, no matter how small, to go before the voters.

Fontaine agreed that was a concern saying he’ll have to have NDOT attorneys review the petition’s language. He said it could greatly slow road and highway construction in the nation’s fastest growing state if they had to wait until the next general election every two years to propose a bond issue or to raise the gas tax if needed.

The task force was created by Gov. Kenny Guinn to examine Nevada’s road systems and its future needs. It is also charged with developing strategies for funding those needs whether for repairs and maintenance or construction of new roads, highways and bridges.

Fontaine said the state will need an estimated $3.8 billion more than existing revenue sources will provide by 2015 to meet needs of its growing population.

He told the legislative Interim Finance Committee earlier Thursday that the state will be looking at all options for raising that money – including the possibility of toll roads in some parts of the state.

“Nevada’s not unique in its funding needs for this and more and more states are looking at tolling,” he said.

But he said no data is available yet on whether toll roads would actually raise enough in Nevada to pay for construction and maintenance.

The committee got some good news from consultant and veteran highway engineer Dwight Bower of Boise, Idaho. He said Nevada’s National Highway System and its interstate highways are in better condition overall than those in any other state in the nation.

“It appears you’ve invested a considerable amount of money in the last eight years,” he said.

Bower told the panel the only weakness is in the past two years and that was caused by dramatic inflation in the cost of asphalt, concrete and steel used to build and maintain the highway system. Asphalt alone, he said, has gone up 86 percent in that time.

He said the state’s bridges are also in excellent condition overall with only 29 rated as poor out of some 1,500.

“That’s about as good a record as anywhere in the country,” he said.

He said Nevada’s transportation department devotes a much better percentage of its total budget to maintenance, repair and retrofit work – including seismic retrofits – than most states and urged the task force not to change that. He said cutting those projects would only cost the state much more down the road.

The task force will hold several more meetings before preparing a report to the governor and Legislature.

— Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.