Nevada’s 2009 biannual Legislature adjourned this month without addressing a looming $7-billion transportation funding shortfall over the next decade. Highway construction spending may be slashed, despite a 103% increase in traffic between 1990 and 2005.

Legislators were reluctant to increase fuel taxes, and Gov. Jim Gibbons (R) threatened to veto an increase. Transportation officials recommended adjusting the vehicle registration depreciation schedule to redirect funds for highways, a move that would generate about $47 million per year. Instead, lawmakers used the idea to fill the state’s general fund.

The Nevada Dept. of Transportation expects its 2010-11 capital improvement program to be cut from some $400 million to $300 million, delaying many projects. Pavement maintenance only receives 43% of the recommended $300 million level. NDOT must also make $100-million annual payments for a $1-billion highway construction bond program.

“We [also] cut down greatly on consultant design work,” says NDOT Director Susan Martinovich. “Our next three years are very, very lean. There isn’t much state money, and we will have to use all of that for matching federal dollars.”

Lawmakers last addressed the issue in 1991, when a fuel tax increase was approved but never implemented. Yet from 1990 to 2005 vehicle miles traveled in Nevada increased from 10 billion to 22 billion, the nation’s fastest growth, reports The Road Information Program, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy group.

“You have all the elements of a perfect storm,” says John Madole, spokesman for the Nevada Highway Users Coalition, a pro-transportation lobbying group. “We don’t have enough revenue to pay for the roads we need.” Another 100,000 vehicles are expected to join the state’s roadways over the next three years, the Nevada Highway Users Coalition says.

An eight-person advisory group is being formed to study and recommend long-term transportation financing solutions for the 2011-12 Legislature. It could include a ballot referendum for indexing gas and diesel taxes.