Monday, April 6, 2009 | 2 a.m.
If Southern Nevada’s government leaders scramble for federal stimulus money like it’s candy spilling from a piñata, they could squander an opportunity to pursue grander valleywide projects that would do more than just boost the economy, a public policy think tank warns.
Spending the money in a coordinated, collaborative way to benefit the greater metropolitan area, transcending jurisdictional boundaries and bureaucratic rivalries, is key to maximizing the stimulus’s long-term economic effects, according to the Brookings Institution.
Just how well Las Vegas and other large metropolitan areas do in this regard is integral to the success of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the organization says.
Brookings argues that the U.S. economy is not monolithic but rather a quilt of tightly knit metropolitan economies. Therefore, “how well the stimulus works at getting metropolitan area economies moving will in large part determine how well it succeeds at doing that nationally.”
Its study, released last week, found that although stimulus money has been distributed across the country in conventional, formula-driven ways — mostly due to the need to move quickly — creative leaders could find some wiggle room in the bill to be innovative in allocating the money, and “make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.”
In terms of transportation, at least, Southern Nevada is well positioned to take advantage of the stimulus funding.
The region’s public works directors come together under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Planning Subcommittee, which was formed about eight years ago to broaden the Regional Transportation Commission’s perspective beyond transportation and to look at development as a whole.
“There’s great potential for this to change the way we do things,” Jacob Snow, the transportation commission’s executive director, said of the stimulus opportunities.
Rather than throwing money at affordable housing, transportation and other issues and thinking of each as a separate need, greater Las Vegas is starting to integrate the solutions, he said.
For example, the RTC is looking for ways to tackle both energy conservation and transportation needs with the same project.
The Las Vegas metropolitan area, like much of the Intermountain West, has an advantage in applying for the stimulus transportation grants because the region lacks transportation infrastructure, according to Robert Lang, an urban planning and policy expert with Brookings.
Until now, he said, the Intermountain West has been told by the federal government: “ ‘You grew up too late. Sorry, we’re out of the interstate business.’ ”Las Vegas, Phoenix and other cities in the area weren’t deemed big enough to warrant federal investment in roads and other transportation in the 1950s, the heyday for such projects, he said.
As a result, the region is isolated and deserves federal money to build the transportation connections it needs, such as high-speed rail between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he said.
Snow hopes the stimulus bill will be a precursor to major changes in how the federal government delivers infrastructure money. The federal transportation bill expires in September and, rather than reauthorizing it, overhauling the policy has been discussed.
Another advantage for Western metropolitan areas: They aren’t divided into many small municipalities as is the case on the East Coast, Mark Muro, an author of the Brookings report, said.
Still, implementation of the stimulus money is in many ways business-as-usual in Nevada.
The governor’s office has created Team Nevada, in which the state agencies discuss the stimulus money, but there is little collaboration with the local entities at this point in the process. Indeed, the state’s Transportation Department already has decided how to spend its share of the stimulus. (To be fair, stimulus money is supposed to be spent quickly on shovel-ready projects.)
As the Brookings report points out, states have the dominant role in distributing the money, and it appears Nevada will hew mostly to the typical top-down structure.
Some other states are working from the opposite standpoint. California, for example, is giving broad autonomy to the cities to dictate funding.
“Their starting point is, Sacramento doesn’t know best,” Muro said.
On the city and county level in greater Las Vegas, each municipality is acting mostly on its own on non-transportation projects, telling other governments what their plans are but not otherwise collaborating on them.
“Traditionally the cities and the county don’t play too well in the same sandbox,” Mike Green, historian at the College of Southern Nevada, said.
Other metropolitan areas are more collegial.
Take Kansas City, which is a good foil for Las Vegas.
The 12 cities and nine counties in the metropolitan Kansas City area have tackled the stimulus process as a unit, agreeing to pursue collaborative goals, David Warm, executive director of the Mid-America Regional Council, said.
For example, they are developing regional applications for the money for uses including an alternative-energy program, health information exchange, diesel retrofit program and rapid transit.
They also have agreed to launch a regional program to invest in a distressed neighborhood located near significant community assets, such as universities, transit hubs and museums. The intent: to concentrate resources for maximum effect in one community.
“There’s not a lot of opportunities in the bill for strategic innovation, but we’re trying to mine what opportunities there are that will make a long-term difference,” Warm said.
Federal agencies will be watching how well municipal governments coordinate stimulus spending on behalf of the greater metropolitan area when choosing to whom to award competitive grants, Muro said.
“The administration will find ways to commend those places that are doing a good job.”