Las Vegas: Beyond the neon
Since gambling first was legalized in 1869, Las Vegas has been a destination point for tourists and travelers. Now, more than 1.1 million people have set up permanent shop in the desert community, and local officials must find ways to accommodate them without straining or even depleting the area’s resources.
In 1997, Las Vegas welcomed 17,000 new residents and entertained more than 30 million visitors. Tourists come and go rather quickly (and last year spent almost $25 billion), but full-time residents require long-term attention.
Now, for every mile of road that is built, 1 mile of sewer line is added. Based on current figures, for every 990 residents, there is 1 mile of road and 1 mile of sewer line — not enough to keep up as the population continues to increase. The Las Vegas Center for Business & Economic Research projects a population of 1.86 million by 2010.
Las Vegas and Clark County are working with the growth, but concerns remain that both may be stretching their resources too thin. “There’s just so much we need, and those things take a lot of time,” says Theresa O’Donnell, director of planning and development for Las Vegas. “We cannot meet the rapid pace of development.”
One of Mayor Jan Laverty Jones’ primary tasks, according to O’Donnell, is to control development in order to maintain a high quality of life for residents. The city conducted seven town hall meetings last year and learned that 45 percent of residents said that their quality of life had declined as a result of growth. “The unfortunate part of [growth] is that residents suffer,” O’Donnell says.
Demand and supply Many people are attracted to Las Vegas by its pleasant climate and available land, but the city also enjoys a healthy economy driven by gambling and hotels, as well as by business opportunities in retail, construction, food and entertainment. Additionally, Nevada residents enjoy many tax breaks: no personal income tax, no corporate income tax, no franchise tax, no inventory tax and no gift/ inheritance tax. Sales tax in Clark County is a favorable 7 percent.
In addition to having a unique economy, Las Vegas is unlike other thriving metro regions because it lacks natural resources. “People forget Las Vegas is a desert,” O’Donnell says. “Nothing grows here — you have to import everything.”
Residents are completely dependent on city and county departments to supply and expand the infrastructure as needed. Based on construction activity in the valley, the city seems to have adopted an “If they come, we’ll build it” attitude.
To support new residents and businesses (more than 6,800 new businesses started last year), in 1997, the city built 45 miles of new roads. It also spent $26 million on new park facilities and $500 million on new downtown projects; added 167 officers to the city’s police force; and approved a 9 percent property tax cut.
In 1997, Clark County completed 29 major roadway projects (worth about $105 million), including 94 miles of construction improvements to the overall street network. Additional county projects are under way to ease the traffic burden. Despite those efforts, however, city and county officials still are working to ensure sufficient resources, including water supply and transportation means, for residents and tourists.
Water flow Led by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), the region is working to establish specific plans, expand current water capacity, open new water reuse plants and preserve existing resources through conservation. SNWA also is making general improvements by installing new pipes and pumping methods and directing attention toward flood control.
The SNWA, comprised of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Henderson, Boulder City, the Las Vegas Valley Water District, the Clark County Sanitation District and the Big Bend Water District, oversees the water needs of all area residents. SNWA’s Capital Improvements Plan and Water Resource Plan have established resources to meet water supply demand through 2025, and they have made recommendations for resources beyond that time.
“We’re beating the demand,” says Richard Wimmer, deputy general manager for SNWA and the Las Vegas Valley Water District. The current water facilities and conservation methods will be sufficient through 2007, based on a projected population of 1.8 million. Today, roughly 80 percent of the water supply comes from the Colorado River, and SNWA is investigating more connections to Lake Mead.
Water reuse supports water demands, and Southern Nevada reclaims all of its wastewater for irrigation and power plant purposes. Las Vegas will open the Northwest Water Resource Center, a 10-mgd reuse facility, by 1999, and the 1-mgd Water Resource Center at Nature Park this year.
Additionally, the valley is subject to many permanent water restrictions. “We have to use what we have more wisely,” Wimmer says. Like many urban areas, Las Vegas restricts water use in the summer; residents are not permitted to water lawns from noon until 7 p.m. daily. Other means for conservation include toilet retrofits, low-flow shower heads and sprinkler clocks to control outdoor irrigation.
SNWA conducted an economic study in 1995 to determine how price affected water usage and could play a role in conservation. The study concluded that a major portion of construction costs should be funded by new customers (i.e., growth pays for growth), but current customers also would be responsible for some costs. Local water purveyors charge increasing block rates. “The more water you use, the more you pay,” Wimmer says.
In recent years, residents have been using little or no landscaping to conserve water in residential and commercial areas. It is not uncommon, according to Wimmer, for commercial sites to have no turf grass at all. Wimmer says his own property includes drought-tolerant plants and shrubs,a dry river bed and plain desert in the landscape, but it does not include turf grass.
“Turf is pretty expensive in terms of water,” he says. Wimmer adds that many yards at existing residences are being renovated without grass, and some golf courses have cut back on turf as well.
“We might have been late getting into conservation, but we’re catching up,” Wimmer says. “Now we’re in it for the long haul.” Lastly, SNWA is working closely with Las Vegas and Clark County to complete a $2 billion phased construction plan that includes water quality improvement, new pipelines and a new pumping station, as well as the reuse facilities.
Water conservation techniques and reuse are assisting the city in year-round water supply, but, on the other side of the coin, Las Vegas has issues with flooding — a surprising threat to the desert region. “Water does not soak into the ground as one might expect in the desert,” Public Works Director Richard Goecke says.
Charleston Boulevard, which passes underneath the U.S. 95/Interstate 15 interchange, known as the Spaghetti Bowl, is an area that suffers during heavy storms. The underpass is part of the Las Vegas Creek System, which includes detention basins and channels. The city has spent $35.6 million on flood control improvements, including $13.5 million on channels and culverts along the interchange.
On the road In addition to being retrofitted for flood control, the Spaghetti Bowl, which is used by an estimated 300,000 vehicles daily, is undergoing a $91.8 million makeover. To be completed in November 2000, the project will include 11 new bridges, three widened bridges and eight rebuilt ramps. It will cut an estimated 15 minutes off commuters’ drive time.
New residential areas built further from downtown have lengthened drive times and added cars and commuters to the interstate system. In 1997, new residents brought 28,200 automobiles to the area. Public transportation is minimal and is used primarily by tourists at the Strip. “People in the west like their cars,” says Goecke, whose main concern is transportation.
While Las Vegas has undertaken many expansion projects to existing roads, Clark County has led the way in new construction. Recent projects include the Desert Inn Super Arterial, a three-phase, $82 million project jointly completed by the county and the Nevada DOT, and the Las Vegas Beltway. The arterial highway serves about 70,000 vehicles daily and provides a bypass around the resort corridor, while the 53-mile-long beltway, which is still under construction, creates a freeway ring around the majority of the urban valley. It is scheduled for completion by 2003.
The county’s fair share tax program has paid for new road construction without additional dollars from the state or federal governments — a rarity in highway projects. “It’s very much a self-help community,” Goecke says. “If one can demonstrate there is a need, [residents] are good at stepping up to the plate.”
According to Caryn Key in Clark County Public Works, historically, road improvements in southern Nevada have been paid for with local, state and federal gasoline taxes as well as with property taxes. By the 1980s, however, those traditional resources could no longer finance the ever-increasing transportation demands of the fast-growing region. Officials were faced with the challenge of finding a local solution to the traffic dilemma.
In the late 1980s, the Regional Transportation Commission, a group of eight elected officials from each government entity within Clark County, commissioned a study to determine what road improvements and services would be needed to keep pace with growing traffic demands into the next century. The study resulted in a comprehensive master plan designed to meet existing and future transportation needs.
At the same time, a committee of local business and civic leaders was created to identify annual revenue sources to pay for those critical projects. The group also was charged with proposing the appropriate legislation to secure the funding.
Ultimately, the committee recommended a “fair share” tax initiative that would equitably share the cost of transportation improvements among tourists, industry and gambling, residents and the state. In 1990, voters approved the fair share funding formula (known locally as Question 10), and it became state law in 1991. The $100 million annual tax package provides the revenue for implementing much of Clark County’s massive transportation improvement program.
As a result of Question 10, major road and highway projects receive funding from six revenue sources, including: * a 1 percent hotel room tax to pay for improvements in the resort corridor district; * a 1 cent per dollar (of vehicle valuation) motor vehicle privilege tax to finance beltway projects; * a new residential and development tax ($500 per single family unit and 50 cents per square foot for commercial construction) used for beltway construction; * a 1/4 percent sales tax to support a public mass transit system; * a 3 cent Jet Aviation Fuel Tax for airport access improvements; and * a 5 cent Motor Vehicle Fuel Tax to upgrade neighborhood and regional streets. In 1997, the fair share tax program generated nearly $140 million, which the county is using to continue a series of integrated road improvement projects and transportation services, including: * widening Interstate 15; * development of a beltway system around the rapidly urbanizing Las Vegas Valley; * construction of additional east- west routes across the heavily traveled Las Vegas “Strip;” * enhancements to streets leading to and from major roadways; and * creation of a public bus and paratransit system.
Future plans Although many Las Vegans are concerned about the present state of the city, local officials are focused on how the city and county will cope with its new residents, new roads and ever-reaching boundaries. Controlling the growth to keep it within the limits of the area’s resources is a top priority.
“Las Vegas has grown up so fast in a short amount of time,” O’Donnell says. “But we still lack a lot of the amenities more mature cities have.” Like any metropolis, Las Vegas will get to a stopping point in construction and resources. Becoming a commuter town, however, with suburban residents doubling as urban workers and stretching the area’s services, is something city leaders hope to avoid.