Testimony by the Honorable John Ensign
Before the Subcommittee on Transportation and Infrastructure
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
March 28, 1997
Las Vegas, Nevada

Good morning, Senator Chafee, and my colleague from Nevada, Senator Reid. I appreciate the tremendous work you do on behalf of our national transportation needs. Thank you for arranging to have a field hearing in southern Nevada and welcome.

This morning, I want to briefly discuss the main concern among residents in the Las Vegas Valley -- growth -- and how it can be addressed in the reauthorization of ISTEA. Also, I want to bring your attention to some innovative technology under development by the Desert Research Institute and how the technology can be applied to address urban environmental concerns across the nation.

Mr. Chairman, as your committee puts together an ISTEA reauthorization bill which will set the framework for federal infrastructure investment into the 21st century, we know we have to look beyond the traditional modes of transportation and carefully examine the nation's mobility requirements into the next millennium. The current ISTEA -- with its integrated approach and increased flexibility-- laid a strong foundation to do just that.

As we near the turn of the century in southern Nevada, the main obstacle to mobility, maintaining quality of life, and the efficient movement of goods, is our phenomenal growth. Las Vegas' economic vitality and healthy tourism industry are attracting 5,000 new residents each month. Nevada's permanent population is increasing at a rate which exceeds that of any other state in the nation. Since the current ISTEA was enacted in 19' 91, Nevada's population has increased by 25%. The state's population is growing by about 4.5% each year. In southern Nevada, the growth rate is even higher at 8%. No other state in the nation is coping with a population boom of this magnitude.

In order to build and maintain the roads and highways we need to manage this unparalleled growth, Nevada's focus, out of sheer necessity, has been to devote its resources to increasing capacity. Because our local, state, and federal dollars are used disproportionately to increase road and highway capacity, Nevada has fallen behind other states in the development and application of high-tech solutions to traffic management and Intelligent Transportation Systems. While Clark County has become an active partner in an Intelligent Transportation System consortium, southern Nevada still lacks the resources to implement the latest technology in conjunction with capacity building. `We know that simply building more roads without looking at other solutions is not a comprehensive answer to our growing pains.

FORMULA

In order for Nevada to take advantage of the practical use of technology, I think the most important factor in determining if Nevada will move into the 21st century is the funding formula which governs states' allotments. ISTEA set each state's share of funding based on the historical share of funds the state received from major programs before ISTEA was enacted. If the reauthorization of ISTEA focuses on protecting states' historical share of funding, there will be no recognition of demographic shifts add such a move would penalize the citizens of growing states like Nevada where infrastructure needs are proportionately higher.

When we talk about transportation and the 21st century, I think we have to fundamentally look at regional concerns, demographics, shifts in population, and allocating resources around the nation according to need. Data from the Federal Highway Administration indicates that Nevada is currently in transition from donee to donor status. This transition doesn't necessarily mean that Nevada would be first on the bandwagon to demand a complete return on its contribution to the Highway Trust Fund. Nevada has much in common with northeastern states which are struggling with gridlock and an inadequate infrastructure system. Nevada's roads were built to accommodate traffic when the state had a population of 600,000, not the 1.6 million residents we have today. I think Nevada would benefit by a fair formula which recognizes our growth and is based on need.

Accordingly, Nevada would be equitably served if you authorize a "bonus" funding category, separate from the regular apportionment process, that compensates states which have greater than average infrastructure needs. This approach would serve several states well.

A fair formula will allow Nevada to address capacity and simultaneously devote meaningful resources to implement the technology of the 21st century.

AIR QUALITY TECHNOLOGY

An issue which we can address through technology in a bipartisan fashion is that of air quality. The serious air quality problem in the Las Vegas Valley poses a threat to the health and well being of one million Nevadans. The Environmental Protection Agency would very well impose sanctions on the Las Vegas Valley because allowable levels of Carbon Monoxide and PM-10 currently exceed Clean Air Act standards. Growth is the major factor in the deterioration of air quality.

Clearly, on a national basis, new strategies must be employed to improve the air quality in fast growing urban areas such as Las Vegas. New strategies are especially urgent in light of the Administration's new proposed air quality standards. In my view, instead of heavy-handed EPA sanctions, technologies and public/private partnerships are a preferable way to accurately pinpoint the sources of pollution. The data generated can guide policy makers to devise effective, cost-efficient pollution prevention strategies.

A division of the University and Community College System of Nevada, the Desert Research Institute, is equipped to conduct air quality research of national significance. DRI has been a leader in this area. In 1994, DRI used an innovative remote sensory devices to identify high-polluting vehicles as they pass through an infrared beam. This experiment was conducted in Nevada's two urban areas with the help of General Motors, the EPA, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, local air pollution control divisions, and the University of Denver. The groundwork and research performed could serve as the basis of developing a technology-based approach to air quality deterioration. I urge you take a careful look at DRI's leadership in air quality issues and utilize their expertise as part of the ISTEA reauthorization.

PROJECTS

Recently, I testified before the House Subcommittee on Surface Transportation if favor of high priority projects in my congressional district. The House is expected to designate projects for federal funding in its reauthorization bill. When the Senate and House work out the issue of high-priority projects in the final reauthorization bill, there is one project in particular I want to highlight. The widening of Highway 95 between northwest Las Vegas and the Spaghetti Bowl Interchange -- which is the most congested section of highway in Nevada -- is the number one priority in Nevada. I strongly support this project and hope you will give it your full consideration as a candidate for federal funding.

CONCLUSION

Finally, Mr. Chairman, the President's $600 million proposal to assist welfare recipients gain increased access to transportation has generated significant interest. I urge you to build upon the successes of federally-designated empowerment zones and enterprise communities as part of this proposal. Here in the Las Vegas Valley, the Southern Nevada Enterprise Community has made great strides in attracting private investment to economically distressed neighborhoods within its borders. Using the existing framework of empowerment zones and enterprise communities is a way to refine the President's proposal and focus federal dollars where we know there will be people moving from welfare to work.

Thank you, again, for the opportunity to appear before your panel. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.