Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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TRANSPORTATION:

Leaked project list shorts Southern Nevada

But officials walk back plan to send county only 14 percent of stimulus road money they control

Gov. Jim Gibbons decided Wednesday that the debate over transportation stimulus spending in Nevada will occur in public.

The governor had previously said the director of the Nevada Transportation Department, who serves at his pleasure, would make the decision. But Gibbons changed course after the Las Vegas Sun obtained a Transportation Department plan that would have shortchanged Clark County on the spending aimed at getting unemployed workers back on the job.

The plan called for 86 percent of the $140 million to be spent outside Clark County, which is home to 70 percent of the state’s population.

Gibbons’ chief of staff, Josh Hicks, said the projects will now be reviewed and approved by the Transportation Department’s board of directors, which includes Gibbons, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, state Controller Kim Wallin, Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki and three Gibbons appointees.

The Transportation Department plan would have sent just $19 million to Clark County. The remainder of the money would be spent on a Washoe County interchange, a highway crossing for wildlife in Elko, and repaving projects elsewhere in the state. The only Clark County project was the repaving of 17 miles of Interstate 15 north of the California border.

Officials at the Transportation Department spent most of Wednesday warning that the list was not final.

“This is not the final list,” department spokesman Scott Magruder said. “We’re still working internally.”

Scott Rawlins, the department’s deputy director/chief engineer, could not say how the projects were selected other than that they could be ready to go within 120 days. He acknowledged the state had $1 billion of such projects.

“We’re still in the vetting process,” Rawlins said. “We wanted to create and stimulate the economy. Not just Clark County, not just Washoe County, but statewide.”

Rawlins noted that Clark County, through the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, will receive $40 million directly from the federal economic stimulus.

The state will receive $201 million for transportation projects in the federal economic stimulus. Under the law, about $40 million went directly to the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada; $10 million went to Washoe County; and another $10 million was earmarked for rural areas and mass transit projects. That left $140 million in discretionary spending for projects throughout the state.

RTC General Manager Jacob Snow said his agency has met with the Transportation Department to discuss the discretionary stimulus money. Asked why the plan was weighted so heavily to the north, Snow demurred.

“I couldn’t answer that question. I would think there would be a lot of angry people if that’s the case,” he said.

Transportation Department Director Susan Martinovich said she hadn’t seen the project list obtained by the Sun.

However, a Monday e-mail distributing the list to several department officials listed Martinovich as a recipient.

Though department officials argued the list was preliminary, she acknowledged that it accounted for the entire $140 million to be spent at the state’s discretion. Some of the projects, such as an interchange in Washoe County, would not receive as much stimulus funding as the plan outlined, she said.

Assistant Director Kent Cooper said the projects were picked from the “pavement preservation prioritization list” approved by the Transportation Department board in September. “Clark County has the biggest needs for congestion, maybe not the biggest need for pavement preservation,” Cooper said.

Asked to respond to the argument some have made that funding should be based on unemployment or population, Martinovich said: “The rural areas may disagree. Washoe County may disagree.”

She said the department decided to focus on paving projects because they would stimulate the economy statewide. She acknowledged the department had not yet calculated the number of jobs each project would create.

Disclosure of the list will likely add new energy to a debate between lawmakers and the governor over who has ultimate say on how the money is spent. It has been a point of sharp disagreement, with legislators arguing that they will spend the money while Gibbons’ staff and the Transportation Department say the decision is theirs.

After seeing the list, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said, “the Legislature will look at what’s most appropriate for getting projects off the ground and creating the most jobs.”

Assemblyman Kelvin Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee, said he was unhappy a list had been prepared without consulting legislative leaders, but declined to address the geographic disparity in spending.

Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Senate Committee that oversees infrastructure, said legislators would not let it stand. “My committee has six members from Clark County, one from Washoe. We are going to determine how the money is spent,” he said.

He added that historically Southern Nevada has been shortchanged on transportation spending, something many have attributed to Reno Republican Bill Raggio’s position as Senate Majority Leader. In November, Democrats took control of the Senate and Las Vegas Democrat Steven Horsford is the new majority leader.

“It’s a new day up here, there’s new leadership up here,” he said. “The disparity in funding will not happen again.”

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