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RTC board turns blue (opinion)


Submitted by Ky Plaskon

Arguably, one of the most powerful boards in northern Nevada, controlling billions of dollars and the future of development in our region, just turned from red to blue for the first time in 20 years. This shift in political balance has major implications for Reno. 

Will we be a community of urban sprawl and deadly nightmare traffic, or will we be a town with sustainable development and sensible, safe micromodal networks? 

For those who might have trouble connecting the dots on how a transportation board impacts development, here it is: developers can’t build sprawling homes far outside of town if the Regional Transportation Commission won’t approve roads to that type of unsustainable and irresponsible development.

The Washoe RTC now includes a majority of Democrats. Mayor Hillary Schieve lobbied to bring on Council member Devon Reese; and County Commissioner Alexis Hill self-advocated to join the RTC Board and succeeded. 

The Board is made up of elected officials who are appointed by each city and Washoe County. But even as Reno/Sparks and Washoe County have vacillated from red to blue and back over the years, the RTC has remained a conservative stronghold with an iron grip on roads, according to Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance analysis. TMBA’s mission is to advocate for equity and one-party control for decades is not equitable.

Ever since a TMBA supporter pointed out the political inequity to me, I have been pulled in both directions. 

“No Ky, don’t complain about one-party control of RTC,” some people said, afraid that by pointing out the inequity, I would ignite a partisan bonfire. So, I refrained. Instead, for the past two years, TMBA members have been working behind the scenes, quietly advocating for more balance on the RTC board.

An analysis of the RTC board’s political party makeup from 2003 – 2021 by Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance.

Why does balance matter? Absolute one-party control is undemocratic, for one. 

Two, the results of one-party control are plain and unflattering. Schools are a good example. They have plenty of free parking around them but no protected bike paths – or even a plan to install any – even as traffic is a growing nightmare around schools. 

The impacts are community-wide. Nevada Tomorrow statistics show that we have more solo drivers with longer commutes, declines in mass transit use, flat bike commuting, and declining miles of bike paths installed each year. 

Our traffic problems could be worse for sure, and who is to say that liberals would do any better? If liberals were 100% in charge for two decades would all of Reno be forced to ride bikes and scooters? Probably not. The fact is, if our community had both liberals and conservatives at the table for the past 20 years, at least we could all be blamed for our community-wide transportation and urban sprawl problems. 

I have some specific examples of the RTC’s conservative dampers on micromobility in a minute.

Don’t get me wrong, the board under conservative control has supported positive developments, such as a protected bike path in Sparks and the installation of the only bike light state-wide for many years. 

But under our past RTC leadership, bike paths have been installed only where they won’t inconvenience drivers and bike paths abruptly end if a driver might experience an inconvenience because the bike path continues through an intersection. This has resulted in a largely disconnected and dangerous micromodal network full of holes community-wide. At the same time, drivers complain that no one uses the bike paths – unaware that the bike paths we have built are deadly and scary.

This bike box at Second and Virginia streets was the scene of an accident soon after it was added to the street. Cars are supposed to stop before the wide white line. City officials said the box will be painted green. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, May 23, 2022.
This bike box at Second and Virginia streets was the scene of an accident soon after it was added to the street. Cars are supposed to stop before the wide white line. City officials said the box will be painted green. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, May 23, 2022.

Conservatives have a favorite saying: drivers pay for roads and they are the only ones entitled to use them. At the same time, they complain that bike riders act entitled because we ask for safe space on roads. In fact, most people who ride bikes also drive cars and also pay for roads. 

But more importantly, in America, public funds, including gas taxes, are supposed to be used for everyone, not just the rich and middle class who can afford cars. Here is a good example. Property owners pay for schools right? But education isn’t only for the children of property owners. The same goes for roads. Roads need to work for everyone.

A little-known fact is that 25% of Washoe residents don’t have driver’s licenses according to Nevada Department of Transportation statistics. A minimum of 25% of roadway space should be dedicated to alternative transportation. Instead, 0-10% of roadway space has been dedicated to safe micromodal travel under RTC’s conservative leadership over the past 18 years. Nearly 30% of roadway deaths are vulnerable road users, including pedestrians and cyclists.

Here are some specific examples of how the conservative attitude and leadership at RTC have damaged our communities transportation options. Scooters and bike-sharing programs are seen as complementary to bus service in many communities. People have the option of taking the bus and then riding a scooter the last mile to get to work and school. RTC runs the bus system so you would think they would be excited about the prospect of scooter and bike sharing in our community to serve their customers. However, previous conservative RTC Chairwoman Neoma Jardon opposed Lime bikes and more recently was the only voice opposing Bird scooters while Democrats supported them. 

Bird e-scooters were launched in Reno on April 21, 2022. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

Also, one of the highest needs in our community for a protected path is from UNR to Midtown. But for decades the RTC has neglected to install one, leaving students in danger. When there was finally a plan to put in a bike path, the RTC abruptly and quietly put it on pause under pressure from a casino, Caesars Entertainment. Now Jardon works for the Downtown Reno Partnership which is heavily influenced by Caesars. 

Here is another example of RTC’s conservative leadership’s damper on safe bike infrastructure. Vice Chair Vaughn Hartung recently had critical comments of the RTCs first micromodal plan, saying that people who wear bike clothes aren’t bike commuters (which is not true) and wondered why people don’t ride on a bike path adjacent to his morning commute. 

TMBA had to point out that what we wear doesn’t determine how we use a bike and that the bike path next to his commute ends just before a dangerous intersection, spitting people out into dangerous traffic. Who wants to use that? 

Safe micromobility directly serves our less fortunate and underserved communities. Wooster High is a perfect example, where kids are using Bird scooters to get to school because neither the RTC nor the school district are appropriately serving them. Not only that, RTC has neglected to put in safe protected bike infrastructure at schools district-wide, putting our kids in danger in high-traffic areas.

The RTC’s conservative leadership’s opposition and negative attitudes toward micromobility have not only put children in danger, they can put a damper on important innovations to improve alternative transportation features for our entire community. 

bike to school week
Washoe County schools often host “Bike to School Week” in May of each school year. Image: WCSD

Despite the board leadership’s skepticism regarding the value of micromobility, RTC staff has quietly moved forward with plans favorable to safety for vulnerable road users and partnering with Bird scooters. They are unsung champions. 

Unlike the board, RTC staff are experts in the field of transportation. They live and breathe traffic engineering every day and watch the trends. They know what works, and what the future holds for us. We have often heard that they are frustrated by a backward culture at the top with leaders who think drivers in metal boxes are the only people who deserve a safe way to get from A to B. 

Our kids and community deserve voices and perspectives that look to the future and serve everyone on our public roads.

The good news is that these holes can be easily patched and RTC, under conservative leadership, has started to work to fix the problems over the past year. The three new voices, Mayor Schieve, Commissioner Hill, and Councilman Reese will diversify the political landscape in a way that is long overdue, releasing us from this conservative grip and giving half our population the voice it deserves.

Yes, the board may return to conservative control one day and TMBA welcomes that, especially as RTC board members such as conservative Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson have started riding bikes. That is opening their eyes to the perils of our deadly roadways for kids and families who just want to ride a bike. Mayor Lawson will be interviewed about his new bike life in the next episode of Bike Life Radio scheduled for noon, Nov. 6 on 97.7FM.

Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance president Ky Plaskon has been pushing for the Center Street bike track for several years. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno
Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance president Ky Plaskon. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno

It would behoove the cities of Reno and Sparks and Washoe County to ensure there this long-term inequity does not happen again. Here is how. Our leaders can encourage and support the peaceful transfer of power between Republicans and Democrats each year so that everyone has a seat at the table at the RTC and a chance to have their priorities see the light of day.

Ky Plaskon is the President of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, BikeWashoe.org and producer of Bike Life Radio on KWNK 97.7FM which is owned by the non-profit Reno Bike Project.

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