I-Team: Funding disparities separate northern/southern Nevada

Las Vegas generates the money, but Reno spends it

LAS VEGAS - Is Southern Nevada once again on the short end of the stick when it comes to state spending on capital projects? The answer depends on who you ask.

More than 70 percent of Nevada's population lives in the south, and while Clark County generates about 80 percent of the state's revenue, it gets far less than that when the budget is sliced and diced.

As lawmaker's hash things out in Carson City, is the north-south rivalry still real?

The old joke is that Northern Nevadans wake up in the morning and think, what can we do to screw over Southern Nevada? Whereas people in the south wake up and ask, what's Northern Nevada?  There is some truth to that perception.

Reno was once the economic and political powerhouse of the state, and there are some up there who still resent being surpassed by Las Vegas, but funding disparities -- and yes, they are real -- can't be explained just by a rivalry alone.

The scenic Galena Creek Bridge between Reno and Carson City, one of the longest cathedral arch bridges in the world, still reigns as a symbol of Nevada's north-south rivalry. It was built to traverse a small gulley that any soccer mom van could navigate. There were major problems in design, cost, and construction for a span that some say should never have been built at all.

"The bridge to nowhere. That was just, it was a railroaded piece. There was no reason to do that," said Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani.

Former state lawmaker turned county commissioner Chris Giunchigliani is still ticked about the $600 million spent for the bridge and the 8-mile, six-lane highway built to slice a mere six minutes off the drive from Reno to Carson City. It would have cost one-fifth as much to merely widen the existing highway, one which carries fewer cars than many surface streets in Las Vegas.

"If you're up there, you have to look for another car," said Dr. Robert Lang. "You can have tennis break out on the freeway and it wouldn't be that disruptive."

Don't get Dr. Robert Lang started on the funding disparity between the north and south. He winces when he sees the crowded freeways in Las Vegas compared to wide open spaces up north. His study found the Reno to Carson highway as the most profligate spending in the country. The least bang for the biggest buck and up to 14 lanes to get to one of the smallest state capitals in America.

As for the bridge.

The largest thing in the U.S. being bridged that didn't need to be bridged. This was a little creek down in the valley that could be crossed with a little horse and buggy and wouldn't get anybody wet," Lang said.

He and fellow economists studied how federal dollars get dispersed in Nevada and found that a Reno resident gets twice as many federal dollars per capita as someone in Las Vegas. Nevada's major project index, measured over a four-year period showed Clark County gets 35 percent of the funding, though 72 percent of the population lives in the south. The Las Vegas Strip generates about 80 percent of Nevada's revenue, but there isn't a single category where it gets that much back.

"We've looked. Never found it. Anything. Never found it," he said.

In higher education, spending per student at UNR versus UNLV has finally evened out, but Lang says things are still way out of whack when it comes to capital projects and infrastructure.

"We wrote the plan for the state, found things like most scientific investment, equipment, lab equipment north. they had ten times the amount per person than we do.

"UNLV had so much less space per student, just over 100-square feet per student. UNR had 200-square feet per student," Lang said.

Reno alumnus Governor Brian Sandoval's State of the State speech included a litany of infrastructure plums for the north but Lang doesn't blame the governor. He thinks it is more a function of permanent staff who make decisions year-round versus a part-time legislature.

"You yield state government every two years to a staff that's almost all northern origin, where going to UNR is more important than going to Harvard if you want to work in state government," Lang said.

Lawmakers know that the Las Vegas economic engine needs to help support services in rural parts of the state.

What chafes is that places like Reno, Elko, or Carson City go along for the ride. When Las Vegas needs to widen a freeway, the hotels or property owners have to pay for it.

"Our needs are so much more, so the 80 percent, I don't expect that back dollar for dollar but there should be some threshold where you don't go below," Giunchigliani said.

Something else that sometimes gets skewed along the northern and southern lines of the state is private investment. When Switch, the giant data hosting company based in the Las Vegas valley, sought a tax break, the only way it was approved is if the company agreed to create 100 jobs up north.

Tesla's gigafactory was built near Sparks, but what is less known is that Tesla initially considered Las Vegas as the hope for its plant.

Faraday, which chose the Apex Industrial Park site in North Las Vegas, heard whispers from some officials that maybe it would be better off if it chose Reno instead.
 


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