RTC Head: Trump Infrastructure Plan 'Breaks A Promise'

Feb 16, 2018


A view of U.S. Route 395 North in November 2015.
Credit Famartin via Wikimedia Commons

On Monday, President Donald Trump finally unveiled his long awaited infrastructure plan. It includes $200 billion in new funding, but under the proposed incentive structure, only 20 percent of any given project can be funded by the federal government.

Reno Public Radio's Jacob Solis sat down with Lee Gibson, executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, to find out how the plan might impact Northern Nevada.

So, first things first, is this new proposal, assuming something like it eventually becomes law, is it going to fundamentally change the way RTC Washoe plans its infrastructure improvements?

I think from a planning perspective, it's not going to change. The laws right now definitely don't have an overly intrusive role for the federal government; they pretty much still leave things to us to decide.

What I think the law, the good parts of the law are, are the opportunity to streamline the federal decision-making process. What I'm skeptical on is, with a 20-percent federal funding level, is it really worth it for us to even bother with all the federal requirements?

I also think $200 billion is woefully inadequate for what we need to do in the country today. We out West, for a time, had the newer interstate systems. Well, guess what. They've rebuilt a lot of the interstate systems back East and in California; now those of us in the middle need to have our interstates rebuilt.

I think for them to pull back the funding, require only 20 percent, make 80 percent come from the local and the states is just a break of an agreement, a break of a promise that's been out there for a long time. And I think they need to borrow a solution we have here, which is we adjust our fuel tax rates to account for inflation, so we can target specific federal funds to regional and local projects, like the Spaghetti Bowl, like U.S. 395, I-80, I-580. Those are the critical roads that are supporting commerce and jobs today in our region; they're in desperate need of being fixed.

We have, on average, 2.6 accidents a day on the spaghetti bowl right now, so we've got to fix that. We need our federal partners to be there with the funds to fix that, and allow us to really continue the restructuring of the local economy.

In other parts of the country, some states and localities are hoping to lean on gas taxes to pick up the slack left by the feds. Washoe has already indexed its gas tax; is there really any more leaning to do?

That's a good point, and this is my view: With what we see in the Trump infrastructure proposal, we see "state and local governments must step up to the plate, and pay more." Well, we've done that in Washoe County; we've been doing it since 2010. From my perspective, I don't know that we can ask our voters to do much more.

I think it's time for the federal government to step up to the plate, I think it's time for the federal government to show that they're good partners, and that they're going to reward the financial commitments our taxpayers are already making to our transportation system and start delivering those funds to us in the formula grants and in the discretionary grant programs both RTC and the Nevada Department of Transportation use and rely on.

A big part of President Trump's plan is incentivizing public-private partnerships. Are there any similar partnerships active right now between RTC Washoe and any private companies?

Absolutely. You know, we've been involved in public-private partnerships probably longer than anybody. We use, for example, a public-private partnership to operate the transit system. We will be looking, as we look at the Spaghetti Bowl, we'll be looking at what I would call a public-and-public-and-private partnership where NDOT and RTC will look at creative ways of funding and financing the Spaghetti Bowl. We'll also look at innovative ways for the private sector to deliver the Spaghetti Bowl, perhaps in a design-build framework.

So many of those partnerships seem to be operating buses or that kind of thing. Is there an appetite among private companies to build infrastructure?

I think there is, but it has to be structured properly. To me, one of the biggest obstacles we have is we traditionally don't turn over -- unless it's a toll road -- a roadway asset to a private company to own and operate. So we're going to have to think through, perhaps through technology and data, some innovative way of letting that private sector investor participate.

They won't own the asset, but they might own the data that comes from that asset.

We'll have to end it there. Lee Gibson is the executive director of the Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County, thanks again.

Thanks, Jacob, it was fun.

Jacob Solis is a senior at the Reynolds School of Journalism.