County commission pushes back on criticism of proposed Strip-airport expressway

Plans to build an elevated expressway between McCarran International Airport and the Las Vegas Strip were again received favorably by county officials Tuesday as they discussed some $427 million in financing for transportation projects.

The Clark County Commission indicated general support for a financing plan for 18 transit projects in the resort corridor. The most significant of those is the proposed expressway, which would cost an estimated $200 million to build and has been offered as a way to ease congestion on roads between the airport and the Strip.

While the commission did not vote on any of the projects, including the expressway, members raised no serious concerns Tuesday about how the county intends to line up the necessary funding. Specific projects should come up for review later as they work their way through the planning process.

Yolanda King, the county’s chief financial officer, said the 18 projects would be funded by hotel room tax revenue earmarked for transportation. Much of the tax money has been used to pay debt service on bonds that will be paid off in the coming years, King said.

With the bonds set to retire, the county will be able to issue about $351 million in new bonds to fund a range of work such as the expressway, new pedestrian bridges on Las Vegas Boulevard and various other road improvements. The county also intends to use about $76 million in room tax money for “pay-as-you-go” funds that will allow officials to start preparing for the projects, according to King.

If built, the expressway would move vehicles down two one-way roadways: one on Swenson Street and Paradise Road and another on Koval Lane and Tropicana Avenue.

Backers of the expressway say it’s necessary to move traffic faster to and from the airport and the Strip, but critics have cast it as an outdated idea that’s too reliant on cars. Expressway opponents would generally rather see the county focus on developing mass transit such as light rail.

Multiple commissioners today indicated that they disagreed with the anti-expressway arguments, and particularly those raised in a recent Las Vegas Sun editorial. Chairman Steve Sisolak suggested that those trying to shoot down the expressway in favor of light rail were engaging in “dream shopping without a plan to pay for it,” which he said was irresponsible.

“I think we need to gather more information, gather the statistics, weigh a cost-benefit ratio as it comes down to what we’re gonna invest in this versus what we’re gonna get out of that — and I would encourage people that are in opposition to this to do the same thing,” Sisolak said of the expressway.

The expressway proposal was unveiled at a January meeting of the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee — of which Sisolak is a member — and the county commission approved moving forward with a study and predesign plans in February.

Since then, Robert Lang, UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West, has been a vocal critic of the project. Lang raised the issue in March, while he was in Denver with other local officials looking at that city’s mass transit system.

“I say more like nightmare-avoiding,” he said in an interview Tuesday, responding to the “dream shopping” remark. “Was Denver dream shopping when it built a (23-mile) commuter line out to the Great Plains? For that matter, were the other major metros in the West all dreaming when they linked their airports via rail?”

While preliminary analysis by county staff has indicated that the expressway could greatly improve mobility in the resort corridor, County Manager Don Burnette stressed at Tuesday’s commission meeting that more detailed analysis would ultimately determine the project’s fate. Burnette said that the final call about whether to build the expressway needed to be a “data-driven decision.”

“Without objective data that shows conclusively that we will realize significant improvements in mobility within the resort corridor — significant enough to justify a very significant expenditure … we shouldn’t do this,” Burnette said.

County officials previously issued a request for qualifications for professional engineering services related to the expressway. Proposals are due Monday.

In addition to discussing the financing plan for the expressway and other projects, commissioners also gave the green light Tuesday to a separate plan regarding the Las Vegas Monorail. The commission approved making funds available that the monorail intends to use for work related to its planned expansion to Mandalay Bay.