Roads, and roadside blight

The efforts by residents to stop the Tahoe Pyramid Link are at an end. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last week upheld a lower court judge’s finding against the Upper Southeast Communities Coalition.

The Coalition may have lost, but the community owes it a debt of thanks for fighting the good fight against arrogant local officials.

The Regional Transportation Commission originally pitched this project to the community in the 1990s as the Tahoe Pyramid Link. After local reaction from residents was sharply hostile, the RTC dropped the plan, then quietly revived it under another name—the Southeast Connector—and rushed it to the construction phase with as little publicity as the law allows. If it causes more traffic congestion, as these projects have a habit of doing—it’s called “induced demand” or “generated traffic”—the public will know who to blame.

Though there was still opposition in the community and legal action pending, the agency began construction to make it more difficult for courts to halt a project that was already underway.

We have seen these techniques used before, with the courthouse annex (the public voted down the bonds), the train trench (the public voted against it), the Honey Lake water importation project (revived under a different name), and now the Tahoe Pyramid link.

We are also seeing it in the way local billboard laws are being enacted or changed. Voters could not have made themselves clearer than in 2000 when Citizens for a Scenic Reno on March 29 filed an initiative petition to place a proposed ordinance on the ballot reading, “Off-premise advertising displays/billboards in the City of Reno are prohibited, and the City of Reno may not issue permits for their construction.” They easily gathered the signatures needed with volunteer workers.

Reno billboard companies, which responded with a competing petition, were unable to get the needed signatures, which in itself sent a powerful message to any public officials that were willing to listen. Unable to win through the ballot, the industry then tried to remove the Citizens measure from the ballot with a lawsuit. The court rejected the effort.

Voters approved the Citizens ballot measure with a 57 percent majority in spite of an onslaught of industry money poured into the campaign. It then became the job of officialdom to stop “balancing” the interests of business and residents—which is what officials at both the county and city level say they have been doing—and start reducing visual blight at every opportunity, in every legal way, at every possible location. Public sentiment could not be more clear.

Granted, the 2000 vote was city-only and did not cover the county, but we have never heard anyone opine that the view is different in unincorporated areas. If there is doubt, it may be time for Scenic Nevada, as the Citizens group is now called, to consider turning to the ballot again, because it appears that the powerful message sent by the public in the 2000 election has dimmed over time. We are not fans of initiative government, but when initiatives are passed and their message is ignored, that is another matter.

And any new ballot measure, while prescribing general rules for byways, might name the new Southeast Connector specifically as being entirely billboard free. After all, local officials keep saying they want to do something to stop the spread of blight.