Who pays for pavement?

Photo By DENNIS MYERS This photo shows Nugget Avenue where it crosses Pyramid Way. The portion of the avenue on the west is repaired by local government and the portion on the east is repaired by state government.

In 2004 after a portion of Sierra Street was changed from one-way to two-way, this newspaper was seeking information on whether a change of policy was underway regarding one-way streets, possibly driven by the need to reduce gasoline usage.

We contacted the city of Reno, whose spokesperson replied, “This is an RTC/NDOT project,” referring to the Regional Transportation Commission and the Nevada Department of Transportation.

We contacted a staffer at the RTC whose name was given to us by the city. He responded, “The project is being coordinated by NDOT and the city of Reno.”

Faced with this, we sent an email message to both asking them to confer and decide who was in charge. We are still awaiting a reply.

That kind of confusion is common. On one occasion we learned that pedestrian crossings at the corner of Oddie and Silverada boulevards are the responsibility of NDOT—formerly called the Nevada Highway Department—although there is no state highway there. Trying to find out who is in charge of what roads can be like a session of “Who’s on first?”

That could be simplified if a plan proposed by the Nevada Transportation Board is successful. The state wants city and county governments to take over many streets which are currently the state’s responsibility while the state itself will take over some roads that are now maintained by the locals.

The state has identified 903 miles of road for the localities to take off its hands. And it has identified another 270 miles it will take off the hands of the locals.

On administrative details like this, there is not normally a lot of questioning of motives. But the only thing that seems to be at issue at the moment is the reason state officials want this change.

Some local officials believe it is just another unfunded mandate, a case of the state dumping more responsibility—and expense—on the municipalities without enclosing a check. State officials, meanwhile, say that money is not the issue.

“This is not about budget, it’s about fairness,” Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki said at a meeting of the transportation board. “This is not about squeezing pennies.”

“It’s always going to be about money,” Washoe County Commissioner Kitty Jung said later. “It always is.”

The street level anomalies abound. In Sparks, the section of Nugget Avenue that runs behind the Nugget Casino and its parking garage on the west side of Pyramid Way is the responsibility of the locals. But the portion of Nugget Avenue from Pyramid Way east to McCarran Boulevard is in the state’s bailiwick.

Freeway approaches are very much at issue. The short stretch of South Meadows Parkway that runs between the U.S. 395 and South Virginia Street is one of those the state wants to dump. So is the section of Neil Road between Del Monte and South Virginia.

Keeping lines straight

It cost the state highway department $14.5 million last year to maintain the 903 miles of road, a cost that would be shifted to the localities.

But for most local officials, this is a situation that has been developing for decades and there is no urgency for dealing with it now, when strains on public revenues are so great.

The relationship is unbalanced. State legislators can raise taxes at will, but local governments live under tax caps imposed by—wait for it—state legislators. So local officials have little patience when the state wants to dump functions on cities and counties.

Krolicki said he sympathizes with the localities, but wants what he calls the ongoing “conversation” among levels of government to address the issue.

“I understand their point, but it still comes down to fairness and local roads should be maintained by local governments, state roads should be maintained by the state,” he said.

A substantial number of the state relinquishments of roads in Washoe County would be outside the cities, in the north valleys, for instance, and in outlying communities like Painted Rock, Gilpin and Mogul. When contacted for comment, Commissioner Jung said she had not previously heard of the state’s plan and wants to be open to it. But she also said, “I don’t believe it’s sustainable. Where are we going to get money for those kinds of capital improvements?” She said the county commission has not yet discussed the proposal.

She said the plan should not be considered in isolation, but as part of a number of policy issues. If the county took over some of those roads in its current financial situation, she said, it could easily result in the roads not being kept up as well, and that would undercut the county’s efforts to attract new companies and keep businesses from leaving the area.

“If we don’t have nice roads it’s the degradation of our ability to entice business here,” she said.

The county already has capital improvements it should be doing but cannot because of lack of money, she said. She also called the idea “untimely” both because Washoe County is trying to put together its budget—“It couldn’t have come at a worse time,” she said—and because in recession state and local governments are equally hard-pressed.

“If they say it’s not about dollars and cents, I would have to hear, why now?” she said. “And I understand—they [the state] need to balance their budget. They have big issues. But I don’t understand how they can expect us to pick up this expense.”

When asked if the plan for transfer of jurisdiction could be gradually phased instead of a thousand miles being dropped on localities suddenly, Krolicki said, “Absolutely, and that is the point.” He said state government had been pursuing the issue since the Guinn administration, a period of a decade, and wanted local governments to join in. “This is a conversation that has literally been going on for 10 years.”

Responsibility for 15 sections of road would be turned over to Washoe County, four sections to Reno and two to Sparks.

A list of the roads the state would take over from local governments around the state is not yet available. NDOT spokesperson Scott Magruder said some shifts in the Truckee Meadows have already happened: “NDOT and the city exchanged roads about two or three years ago when NDOT took over the southern half of McCarran Boulevard, and the city [of Reno] took over ownership of a section of Virginia and Fourth streets.”

The matter came before the Nevada Transportation Board—made up of the governor, lieutenant governor, controller, attorney general and three citizen representatives—because when the state highway department recently wrote to local governments asking them to take over the roads, none of the local governments replied.

A new round of letters will now be sent.

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Dennis Myers
About Dennis Myers 1397 Articles
Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely Nevada, a children’s history textbook, and a contributor to the books The Mythical West and Covering the Courts in Nevada. In September, 2020, he was inducted into the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame.