Down the road
Trump budget may cut local funding
Crews have been working since late January on major construction along a 3.1-mile stretch of road that cuts through Reno and Sparks. And it’ll be summer 2018 before they’re finished.
The projected 18-month, $58 million Fourth Street/Prater Way Bus RAPID Transit Project will, according to the Regional Transportation Commission, yield more than just a resurfaced road. All utilities along the route are being moved underground and wide, ADA-compliant sidewalks constructed. The route will undergo lane “dieting” to produce single-lane travel in each direction, a dedicated center turn lane, and bike lanes running both east and west. According to its official website, the project also “includes eight passenger stations (four in each direction), off-vehicle fare collection, transit signal priority, real-time schedule information at stations and a bus charging facility.”
It’s a big undertaking. And that’s actually part of the reason RTC was able to secure big money in the form of federal grant dollars, including a $16 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the TIGER grant program—started under the Obama administration in 2009—is designed to fund projects that “generate economic development and improve access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation.” That’s exactly what RTC Executive Director Lee Gibson said the 4th/Prater project will do.
“We’re going to be able to help connect people who live in moderate income neighborhoods to educational and job opportunities that they might not otherwise be able to access without sidewalk, bicycle and transit connections, because they maybe just don’t have access to an automobile,” he said. “One of the challenges we face right now is workforce development—trying to get people the skills so they can take the jobs that are coming, instead of having to bring people in. And this project was noted in the TIGER grant application and award for doing just that.”
Future RTC projects—like the Virginia Street Bus RAPID Transit Extension, tentatively set to begin next spring—were also designed to further economic development and educational access. But federal grant programs designated for projects like these may cease to exist under the Trump administration—whose “skinny” budget proposal released in March recommended a 13 percent overall decrease in the DOT’s annual budget and the immediate elimination of the TIGER grant program. Congress, which did not pass a 2017 spending bill last fall, went against many of Trump’s recommendations last week when it finally passed a $1.1 trillion spending package to keep the government running through September. (Both Dean Heller and Mark Amodei voted against it. The state’s Democratic representatives voted in favor.)
Of course, the matter is by no means resolved. Funding for these programs may very well be on the chopping block again when it’s time for 2018 appropriations bills. Nonetheless, it is Congress—not the president—that passes spending bills. While he makes recommendations, control is not his. And Trump’s “very major” $1 trillion infrastructure proposal is still forthcoming. Depending on what shape it takes, the future of infrastructure spending could be altered significantly.
“Like a lot of things in the Trump administration today, there seems to be wide oscillations in which direction policy goes,” Gibson said. “So, we will wait and see.”
As an example of “oscillations,” Gibson points to suggestions that Trump’s infrastructure package might be paid for in part by instituting a repatriation tax holiday on corporate earnings being held abroad. Companies that have “parked” their overseas profits outside the U.S. until Congress gives them a tax cut (“Their masters’ voices,” RN&R, July 28, 2016) would get that cut and pay less than the standard statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent when bringing money back to the U.S.—with the lower taxes paid earmarked for infrastructure.
“Depending on how that plays out, that actually could end up being a huge boom for infrastructure if those funds are allocated to DOT and that is the new and expanded source for projects like this,” Gibson said. “I mean, I’ve lived through bills and these types of things in my career. My recommendation is to continue, stay the course. It’ll all work itself out, and funding will be available.”
One way funding may be available in the future is through a Nevada state infrastructure bank (SIB), which Senate Bill 517 proposes to create. The bank would be able to receive federal and other funds and provide loans and financial assistance to state and local agencies, like the RTC. According to Gibson, the RTC supports the measure, which could provide a funding mechanism for things like improvements to the Spaghetti Bowl and Interstate 80 eastbound between Sparks and the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center at the USA Parkway exit.
These are projects that are still a few years off. Gibson pointed out that it could take that long for a new SIB to be operational, especially if Trump’s infrastructure proposal doesn’t arrive until fall and Congress doesn’t take it up until 2018.
But this pace is not unusual for infrastructure development. Take, for example, the 4th/Prater project, for which the first public open house was held in September 2011. Also in 2011, the RTC initiated a project in conjunction with Nevada Humanities to document the history of the corridor and conduct oral history interviews with area business owners and residents. More than three dozen people were interviewed over the course of several years.
Opinions regarding traffic and construction in the corridor were solicited from some of those who were interviewed when the project was still still open to public input. Transcripts of these interviews are available online. At least nine of them include discussion of construction. They reveal mixed opinions. Some people were against lane dieting. Others didn’t think bike lanes were necessary and would rather see the space used for parking. And still others wanted to see all of the above.
Time will tell if the 4th/Prater project meets the ambitious goals set for it, including economic revitalization. Today, opinions on the project remain mixed.
Ed Scalzo, owner of Forever Yours Furniture in Reno, was interviewed for the oral history project in 2012 and was in favor of lane dieting then. Recently, he said he still believes the project will benefit people and businesses in the corridor.
Cathy Langdahl is the owner of the Flower Bucket in Sparks. She wasn’t interviewed during the oral history project, but she spoke with KTVN Channel 2 for an April 21 news segment, saying that the number of customers visiting her business had dropped by at least 50 percent since construction began.
By late April, Langdahl had grown more concerned. During an April 28 interview for this article, she said she didn’t believe many Sparks businesses had ever been in support of the project.
“I don’t know who wanted this project, other than RTC,” Langdahl said, adding that she now fears her business may not last as long as the construction.