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$16 million grant will help connect downtown Reno to Sparks, but transit needs persist


Transportation officials are celebrating a $16 million federal grant that they'll use to better connect bus lines from downtown Reno to downtown Sparks. Reno Public Radio's Michelle Bliss attended Tuesday's press conference at Reno's 4th Street bus station where discussion of the project spurred a larger conversation about the compounding transportation needs in Washoe County and nationwide. 

The Regional Transportation Commission (RTC ) wants to improve a 3.5 mile corridor between Reno and Sparks by expanding the county's fleet with four new electric buses, making ADA upgrades, and adding sidewalks and bike lanes along the route. Sparks Mayor Geno Martini says the changes, ultimately, will support economic growth.

"This project doesn't just help get people to the doctors' appointments, education centers, jobs, or the movies," Martini says, "but these upgrades will help the businesses already along this corridor grow."

The RTC already operates four electric buses, so the expansion will bring its total to eight. Each one can get up to 29 miles per gallon compared to the 4 miles per gallon of a conventional bus, and the RTC expects to save more than $400,000 per vehicle in fuel costs.

"There's not enough funding to do everything we want to do with transit," says Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra, the company that makes these buses. "So  one of the things that we've got to be really smart about is making long-term investments that have a very sustainable cost structure to them."

The RTC's $16 million federal grant is part of the national TIGGER program, which supports projects meant to lower greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. Victor Mendez is Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation. His office received nearly 800 applications for projects that would have cost a total of $8 billion if they had all been selected.

"All told, 72 projects in 46 states and the District of Columbia received nearly $600 million in this round of TIGGER," Mendez explains. "But for every dollar in projects that we funded, there were $15 in projects that we did not fund."

Mendez says legislation called the Grow America Act would help improve and repair roads, railways, bridges, and transit, basically all modes of transportation, which he says, need almost $2 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2020.

It's a 4-year, $300 billion plan that was quietly proposed by the Obama administration this spring, but like previous federal transportation bills that have stalled in recent years, the act would require bipartisan support to survive.

"We are working very closely with Congress to see what we can do," Mendez says. "We will have to negotiate some issues. We understand that. It's not easy, but at the end of the day, it's about improving safety on our system."

Like other counties across the country, Washoe has a lot of transit needs that are not being met with federal dollars. The RTC is actually operating at levels comparable to the '90s.

The entire upgrade between downtown Reno and Sparks will cost roughly $50 million and the RTC is still looking to secure close to half of that pot.


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