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County: Nevada’s highway funds need to support more than just Clark County

By Kristen Hackbarth

An update on plans for modernizing Nevada’s transportation infrastructure and funding structure on Tuesday was met with concerns from Washoe County Commissioners, who said traditionally Clark County has received the lion’s share of road dollars. 

Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) officials, however, say the bigger problem is fewer funds for the whole state.

Nick Johnson from NDOT presented details on progress made by the advisory working group formed as a result of Assembly Bill 413 passed during the 2021 legislative session. 

The 29-member group is tasked with providing recommendations for the 2023 legislative session related to sustainable highway funding, multimodal transportation, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and land use and smart growth strategies.

A big challenge, Johnson said: Nevada’s population grew by about 15% from 2010 to 2020, but vehicle miles traveled increased by about 34%. In short, there are more people in Nevada, and they’re using the roads a whole lot more. 

Taxes to fund road projects aren’t keeping pace with the increase in driving, Johnson explained, creating a challenge in how the state’s highway fund – which gets a large portion of its money from fuel taxes – can pay for necessary infrastructure and improvements. 

In 2010, Nevadans paid about 1.27 cents fuel tax per mile driven, but that dropped to about 1.03 cents in 2020. Blame fuel economy and the switch to electric vehicles for the drop. As people switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles, they can drive more miles on a tank of gas or without any gas at all.

Construction costs have also increased over the past two years, rising 15% from January 2020 to October 2021. It costs more now to do the same project that was planned two years ago. 

“With inflation, material shortages … it’s making it harder and harder not only to preserve our existing infrastructure but construct the new,” Johnson said. 

The advisory working group has identified two alternative funding approaches they’ll be evaluating over the next several months before presenting final recommendations to the legislature.

Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung
Washoe County Commissioner Vaughn Hartung

Commission Chair Vaughn Hartung said he hopes that any items that move through the legislature related to funding will be sent to voters to decide.

“I’m very frustrated with the level of spending in Washoe County. It’s disproportionate,” Hartung said. “We, the county residents … through RTC have had to fund many of the things, even on NDOT right-of-ways, so I’m frustrated… I don’t know how the working group is going to do this, but I will say once they come up with a measure I’m hoping they’ll take it to the voters.” 

Commissioners said they were also concerned that Clark County, because of its population density, gets priority when it comes to funding road projects and infrastructure improvements. 

Hartung said that Pyramid Highway, which is within his district, hasn’t had major improvements in 30 years.

“When you travel outside of Interstate 80 or [Highways] 395, or 50 for that matter, or I-95, you see that there are parts of roads in the state that are just in disrepair,” said Commissioner Bob Lucey. 

He said NDOT says it prioritizes safety and is aware of projects that need to be completed, but it seems that when the time comes to pay for projects NDOT only has funds to spend in Clark County. 

“It leaves the other 16 of us to fend for ourselves,” Lucey said. “To me it’s almost a dollar short and a day late in regards to where we really need to address this stuff.”  

Johnson said that Clark County has local funding measures similar to those in place in Washoe County, which include a voter-approved gas tax and index on the gas tax, plus regional road impact fees. 

Revenue mechanisms the advisory group is reviewing include a long list of options from fuel taxes to fees based on vehicle engine type, fuel economy rating, vehicle weight, usage and distance driven, or consumption fees on things such as batteries and tires. 

Hartung said he was concerned that some of the revenue options would have an outsized impact on some people or impose multiple taxes on drivers. He cited the fuel tax, which is paid in small increments over time versus a vehicle or licensing fee that’s paid in one larger lump sum. The ability to come up with a large sum of money all at once might limit a person’s ability to have a car and drive it. 

Commissioner Alexis Hill said she also wanted to see flexibility built into the recommendations so highway funds might in the future also be used for transit. 

The advisory working group is scheduled to provide preliminary recommendations by June 14 before issuing a final report and recommendations ahead of the 2023 legislative session. More information on the group and its work is at NVTransportationFuture.org.

Other commission business

North Valleys flooding update

An update was provided on work done in the Swan Lake area in response to the 2017 flood event. The county has spent about $11.6 million to date on projects in the area including $10 million from the general fund and $1.6 million from the utility fund. 

Swan Lake graphic: Washoe County.
Swan Lake graphic: Washoe County.

Funds have been used to purchase four homes in the flood area, clean up buildings and debris and remove damaged structures. The county is planning to purchase additional properties when funding becomes available. 

All of the barriers around the lake are being removed and roadways and ditches rebuilt – however, more work remains. Work is scheduled to be completed in April of this year. 

County officials are also working with FEMA to update the floodplain maps for the area using new data gathered from a Desert Research Institute study completed in January. The 2017 flooding revealed that FEMA’s flood risk maps for the area were not accurate. 

Grace Community Church donates a lot of money

Grace Community Church donated more than $700,000 to Washoe County Human Services Agency for exterior and interior improvements to River House on the Our Place Campus. River House is one of the buildings that houses clients who’ve completed the Crossroads substance abuse program and are working to transition back into the community. 

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