Nevada Toll Road Discussion Renewed

A proposal to allow for privatized toll roads as a way to help reduce a huge funding shortfall for Nevada highway projects died in the Legislature earlier this year - but lawmakers already are working on the idea for the 2009 session.

An interim subcommittee chaired by state Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, heard Thursday from proponents of the public-private concept, including former U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, now a lobbyist for investment firm Goldman Sachs.

There was none of the debate that has occurred elsewhere - the potential conflict with Goldman Sachs advising states on how to get the best price from investors for roads and also being an investor itself, hoping to pay a low price for roads or other government infrastructure.

Instead, legislators talked about the need to quickly find ways of resolving major traffic problems, especially in Las Vegas, without raising fuel taxes.

Nolan also said lawmakers need to be primed with information on the public-private deals before the 2009 Legislature convenes.

Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, said it's critical to resolve the state's traffic problems, adding, "I'd hate to see Las Vegas strangled by traffic strangled by smog."

Senate Minority Leader Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, said the discussion must include more than just toll roads.

She said high-speed trains and other traffic-reducing alternatives also must be considered.

Titus added that the subcommittee should work closely with a task force that reports to Gov. Jim Gibbons, who chairs the state Transportation Board.

"If the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing, it's a waste of my time to be here," Titus said.

Gephardt said the public-private deals aren't limited to toll roads, and light-rail ventures also are part of the equation.

While there's some resistance to such deals, he added that to many
tax-wary voters they represent "the least worst alternative."

While the toll-road legislation died in committee during the 2007 session, lawmakers approved a $1 billion plan to cover part of a $5 billion shortfall in funding for highway projects.

The plan diverts $20 million annually from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, as well as $44.3 million from existing rental car taxes and $170 million in property tax revenue earmarked for capital projects in Washoe and Clark Counties.

The rental car and property taxes will be collected over eight years.

The money will finance $1 billion in bonds for upgrades to Interstate 15 and U.S. 95 in the Las Vegas area and Interstate 80 in the Reno area.

The new law guarantees that money raised in one county stays in that county.

Lawmakers have acknowledged the plan is only a partial solution, but will cover costs for at least a few years.