Toll talk falters in Nevada

| Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Despite being told that public-private partnerships could help the state cope with funding shortfalls to get needed road work done, Nevada state lawmakers haven’t warmed up to the scheme.

Two bills are dead in the Assembly that sought to increase tolling options for the state. One bill – AB417 – would have authorized the Nevada Department of Transportation to enter into public-private partnerships. It also would have required that alternative routes be available for those who want to avoid paying to use the privatized routes.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, the bill remained in the Assembly Transportation Committee at the deadline to advance to the chamber floor, effectively killing it for the year.

A related bill met the same fate. Sponsored by Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, the bill – AB583 – would have allowed municipalities to set up toll road and bridges. It also required that alternative routes be available but it didn’t permit public-private partnerships.

A Senate bill also died that originally would have limited authorization to set up toll roads and bridges. To qualify, cities would need to have at least 10,000 residents while counties would be required to have at least 100,000 residents.

Local governments that qualify could partner with private groups to design, build and operate toll routes.

Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Nolan, R-Las Vegas, the bill – SB392 – was later changed to require a study on tolling projects. It was left in a Senate committee at the deadline to advance from the chamber.

Advocates for toll roads in the state got a boost recently from former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt, who is a lobbyist for investment firm Goldman Sachs – the same outfit that pocketed $20 million a year ago for brokering the $3.85 billion deal to lease the Indiana Toll Road to a foreign group.

The now-retired congressman from Missouri made a recent stop in Carson City, NV, to discuss such partnerships and said that tolling would be better than increasing fuel taxes to pay for roads.

At a legislative hearing, Gephardt said the state might benefit from tolling trucks along Interstate 80 in northern Nevada and cars on freeways in Las Vegas. Privately-funded lanes on Interstate 15 linking Los Angeles and Las Vegas also might reduce congestion, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

At a time when the state is trying to figure out how to make up for a nearly $4 billion shortfall in highway funding during the next eight years, Gephardt cautioned that pay-to-play routes should not be a “panacea” for all transportation funding problems.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has been lukewarm on tolls. He said he would oppose any toll plan that doesn’t include free alternate routes.

“I don’t favor making toll roads out of existing highways that people are already using,” Gibbons told the Review-Journal.

The governor said he might be willing to use bonds or surplus funds to pay for some road work. He has made it clear he’s against traditional funding methods that include tax or fee increases.

The governor’s stance on taxes is likely partially responsible for the removal of a provision from another bill to increase the state’s per-gallon tax on diesel and gasoline by 6 cents during the next two years.

The Senate Taxation Committee amended the bill – SB324 – that still includes provisions to increase vehicle registration fees paid by drivers through a reduction in depreciation allowances, a $20 increase in the fee for driver’s licenses, and putting sales taxes from motor vehicle sales and repairs to highways instead of the general fund.

Sponsored by Sen. Mike McGinness, R-Fallon, the bill has been forwarded to the Senate Finance Committee.

One effort that does have the governor’s backing would dedicate $170 million in state surplus revenue this year to the next phase of Interstate 15 in Las Vegas. The cash infusion would be used to extend improvements to I-15 from the “Spaghetti Bowl” interchange with Interstate 95 north to Craig Road to help relieve congestion.

The bill – AB544 – is in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor

keith_goble@landlinemag.com

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