Study panel supports toll road highway projects | NevadaAppeal.com

Study panel supports toll road highway projects

A governor’s study committee voted Thursday to recommend the 2009 Legislature approve the idea of public-private partnerships to build highways in Nevada.

There traditionally has been resistance to the idea among lawmakers since privately built highways mean toll fees for those who use them.

Sen. John Lee, D-Las Vegas, made the motion, saying without the cash to build all the highway miles a growing Nevada needs, the state has to consider such things as privately built highways.

The idea would be to have a private concessionaire construct additional lanes in a highly congested area such as I-15 or the Boulder City bypass. Drivers who wanted to get out of the traffic jam would pay for the privilege of using those lanes instead.

One apparent stumbling block in the hypothetical project is the projected toll for using the “managed lanes.” According to the presentation, the charge could be up to 70 cents a mile. For a commuter using the full 15-mile stretch detailed in the hypothetical project, it would cost $10.50 each way. It would cost a driver $104 to use that road to get to and from work each week.

Carole Vilardo of the Nevada Taxpayers Association questioned that cost but was told it’s just a hypothetical model. She also asked Lee to consider narrowing the motion to focus on “congestion management” rather than leaving it wide open to any highway project.

Lee said he wanted to leave it broad so the Legislature could decide how far to go.

Robin Reedy of the treasurer’s office voted “no at this time,” saying Treasurer Kate Marshall wants to see “financial numbers from a real project” before committing to support the idea.

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, abstained on the final vote out of concern he would be branded as supporting toll roads. He questioned why the group needed to vote on the issue at all.

But group Chair Kirk Clausen, regional manager for Wells Fargo Bank, said the group was formed “to get together and determine whether PPPs are a viable alternative.” He said its charge was to make a recommendation on the issue.

“This is putting the tool in the tool box,” he said.

Kim Daily of Carter Burgess consulting, which prepared the hypothetical project, told Atkinson there are really only three ways to finance highway projects: “Raise taxes, use current funding or through user fees.”

Other members pointed out the study group was formed to consider public-private projects because Gov. Jim Gibbons and many lawmakers don’t want to raise taxes and there is no excess existing money to build more roads.

The recommendation will be forwarded to the Nevada Transportation Board, which is chaired by the governor, and, if that body approves, drafted as one of the Department of Transportation’s legislative proposals for 2009.

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