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After years of anticipation, the Tesla gigafactory opened just outside of Reno in 2016. In this series, KUNR explores everything from hiring efforts, the evolution of battery technology, infrastructure and workforce challenges for the region, and more. Our reporting on Tesla earned a 2016 regional Edward R. Murrow award for best small market radio news series from the Radio Television Digital News Association.

Interview: The Strain Of Growth On Our Roadways, Transit

Nevada Department of Transportation

With the Tesla gigafactory now officially open, we know that more businesses and more people are coming to Northern Nevada. That’s going to put a strain on roadways and transit. To learn what local officials are doing to plan ahead, our News Director Michelle Billman spoke with Lee Gibson. He’s the head of the Regional Transportation Commission, or RTC, in Washoe County. 

KUNR: Before we talk about future growing pains let’s talk about the effective roadway and transit infrastructure we do have in place. It’s my understanding that what we already have is helping to attract more businesses. How so?

Lee Gibson: Well, with respect to the current system, we operate one of the most efficient bus systems in the country as compared to other cities about our size. Our roadway program is backed by an extraordinarily innovative funding mechanism, the RTC 5, whereby we adjust fuel prices every year to account for inflation to help maintain purchasing power for road construction.

If there’s one thing I’m really proud of is our community stood up at the depths of the Recession and said, ‘Let’s go ahead and adjust our fuel taxes every year, a couple pennies, three cents, so that we can maintain our purchasing power.’ Instead of watching fuel prices increase and create jobs in Houston, Texas, we’re creating jobs here through our construction program.

Our ability to maintain our road system—start construction of projects like Southeast Connector, complete projects like Moana Lane, we partnered with Nevada Department of Transportation to improve the freeway—we kept a certain level of construction jobs available in the community. But more importantly, we kept that roadway infrastructure in place so that logistics companies, manufacturing companies, as they were making their location decisions—remember, a lot of them were making location decisions during the Recession—and now we’re seeing those buildings go up with those jobs. But for that investment in roads, I don’t know that would we be seeing that today.

KUNR: Looking ahead, funding is really tight and you’re not seeing enough support from the federal government. If Congress continues to stall that funding, what are the consequences of not having our infrastructure keep up with our population growth?

LG: If our ability to support business’s freight logistics cannot keep up, then we will lose the moment of opportunity we have to continue to diversify our economy. That’s the real cost that I don’t think any Nevadan wants to see. We have been very successful in creating the logistics that the manufacturing, distribution, a glimpse of high tech out there…an inability for us to ship efficiently to California or to the East Coast could be, in my opinion, a threat to sustaining that economic growth and diversification.

KUNR: One specific area I want to focus on is the Spaghetti Bowl, where 395 and 80 intersect near the UNR campus. How do we improve the flow of traffic there and avoid it getting worse as more people move here?

LG: We have to sit down right now, go through a planning and engineering process, the environmental process, and begin defining those improvements. The North Valleys is growing very rapidly. We’re seeing, especially, a lot of the employment centers, industrial manufacturing distribution centers, going in up there. We have to figure out how to get the workers up there. Those improvements to the Spaghetti Bowl are going to be critical to maintaining the economic viability of that region.

NDOT and RTC are going to come together and we’re going to fast-track a design; we’re going to fast-track the environmental process, respecting the environmental issues, and try to get both a set of short term improvements going here in the next couple years with an eye to the long-term improvements. I don’t want to kid listeners, though: That’s going to be a very costly set of improvements to build when we go to reconstruct the Spaghetti Bowl. Las Vegas is reconstructing it’s version of the Spaghetti Bowl. It’s well over a billion dollars when you total up the cost. Now, I don’t know if we’re going to get that high, but we certainly want to make sure we create a long-term fix that will ensure mobility, safety, and the economic viability for our region.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.
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