Street Smarts

Our congested roads reveal we need a more intelligent paradigm

By Steven Miller
  • Thursday, January 4, 2007

Southern Nevada’s traffic congestion woes, says one of America’s pre-eminent transportation experts, stem from “poor policy choices and a failure to separate solutions that are effective from those that are not.”

Of course, when U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta made those remarks in May, he was speaking generically and not seeking to embarrass the Nevada officials responsible for our roads and streets. 

Nevertheless, Mineta’s comments — made to a Retail Federation of America conference in May — were universal and unconditional. And they apply with force here in the Silver State.

Our problem is that, like most states, Nevada still relies on antiquated road-funding and management paradigms that each year prove themselves less adequate to the needs of a 21st Century economy.

Today, traffic in Las Vegas is as bad as that of New York City. According to a study from the Reason Foundation, Sin City and the Big Apple are now tied for the ranking of 10th most congested city in the U.S. In each, it takes almost 40 percent longer to get anywhere during peak traffic hours, compared to off-peak hours.

Thus, traffic congestion is already choking the Vegas metro area, hurting the whole state economy and reducing our quality of life. Your personal odds of being in a traffic accident, the response time of emergency service and the cost of your car insurance are all increasing — while rush-hour delays are most likely reducing your quality time with loved ones.

Making this situation even worse, we are getting relatively less and less for our government tax dollars. In the past, Nevada ranked high in national rankings of cost-effective road spending. Our highway and street systems were in good condition, and only relatively thin budgets were required for up-keep and for laying down new pavement.

However, under the Guinn administration Nevada’s relative performance declined precipitously. In 1998, according to Reason researchers, Nevada ranked 13th best. Five years later in 2003 the state had declined to 16th and one year after that, in 2004, it had dropped to 22nd in the nation. Figures for 2005 and 2006 are not yet in.

Many readers will cite the state’s rapid growth during the period. That observation, however, only underlines the more basic point — that Nevada’s approach to road funding, building and maintenance is not able to keep up with the demands of a dynamic and growing state.

Others will focus on the political difficulties that beset efforts to expand state infrastructure spending through higher taxes or re-routing other revenues. That point also, however, simply spotlights the inadequacy of the frame of reference that state officials — whether elected or appointed — have brought to the issue.

Nevada is not alone in this “paradigm problem.” Its nationwide scope is why Mineta appeared before retailers in May at the start of National Transportation Week. State budgets all across the country are stretched thin, he pointed out, and “gasoline taxes are becoming increasingly untenable as long-term sources” of streets and highways funding.

“We need a new approach,” declared Mineta, “and we need it now.”

Fortunately for Nevada taxpayers and drivers, a new approach to traffic congestion exists, and state policymakers need to embrace it. Financial markets have known about it for eons. It’s called OPM — Other People’s Money.

In Texas, a European investor group has already paid state government $1.2 billion for rights to build a massive $7.2 billion private road project across the state and then collect truck and other tolls for 50 years.

In Chicago, investors paid the city $1.83 billion to let their company assume responsibility for all maintenance and operating costs of the Chicago Skyway for 99 years while receiving its tolls.

In Indiana the same investors are buying the state toll road for $3.85 billion, while Governor Mitch Daniels is proposing a new 75-mile $1.5 billon tollway as a solution to traffic congestion around Indianapolis. Again, investors would pay the state for the right to build, maintain and operate the road, and collect tolls.

This approach is sweeping the nation and world because everybody benefits. Commuters save travel time, get safer, better roads and face less hassle and expense. Businesses get lower-cost goods and services. And cities and states increase their economic competitiveness relative to their neighbors.

Too often we presume that solving infrastructure issues means attacking average families’ income streams with higher taxes.

Actually, however, it is the “government knows best” paradigm that’s behind our infrastructure problems. We need to move away from that as quickly as possible.

Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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