Sisolak orders new sagebrush conservation framework as deer, greater sage-grouse numbers drop

Citing fewer fawns per doe and declining numbers of greater sage-grouse, Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a new executive order on Monday that aims to safeguard the state’s sagebrush ecosystem and its animals through a Nevada Habitat Conservation Framework.

In a statement, Sisolak said his executive order was designed to protect the migration patterns of wildlife species ranging from pronghorn to the sage-grouse, who live and move across the sagebrush environments that cover more than half the state. That environment also fuels Nevada's outdoor recreation economy that’s estimated to create 87,000 jobs, generating $4 billion in wages and salaries each year. 

Environmental authorities report that wildfire, invasive species and climate change are putting the sagebrush more than 360 of its species at risk — leading to the framework’s creation and a requirement for state agencies to develop mitigation plans.

“Whether it is mule deer or desert tortoises no animal thrives without a healthy ecosystem,” Sisolak said in a statement, “and this executive order puts a crucial focus on the corridors through which wildlife migrate to survive.” 

The framework will “provide for habitat conservation, restoration, rehabilitation, and protection” for sagebrush lands in coordination with private landowners, federal land management agencies and relevant state and local agencies, according to text from the executive order. It also focuses on providing animals with migration routes that keep them safe from roadways.

Included is the state wildlife department, which through the executive order has been directed to create a Sagebrush Habitat Plan meant to more effectively conserve the declining sage-grouse population and evaluate how policy changes could combat identified threats to the ecosystem at large. The department will also create a Connectivity Plan to be completed by the end of 2023 that will better identify migration corridors and secure those for animals by working with the transportation department to plan infrastructure.

Three department heads in Sisolak’s administration will lead the project. Tony Wasley, who directs the Department of Wildlife, will collaborate with the state departments of conservation (led by Brad Crowell) and transportation (led by Kristina Swallow) to conserve wildlife habitats, address wildfire and invasive species threats and maintain ease of access for animals through the corridors.

The order was lauded by environmental groups and progressive advocates — from Western Resources Advocates to the Institute for a Progressive Nevada — along with sporting groups.

“We look forward to working with the Governor’s office and the Nevada Department of Wildlife in seeing [the framework] implemented so that healthy big game herds in places like the iconic Ruby Mountains will continue to provide world-class outdoor experiences for future generations of sportsmen and women,” said Carl Erquiaga of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Addressing climate change, sprawl, lawmakers advance proposal expanding fuel taxes to cover ‘transportation infrastructure’

Interstate 11 during construction

Since 1940, Nevada has followed a straightforward rule: any tax or fee on gasoline, car registration or driver licenses has to be allocated toward the “construction, maintenance, and repair” of the state’s more than 5,000 miles of public highways.

But between desires to limit urban sprawl and address root causes of climate change, Nevada lawmakers are considering moving forward with a proposed constitutional amendment that would open up use of gas taxes and other automobile-related fees to more than just road construction and repair.

Members of the Interim Legislative Committee on Energy voted Wednesday to move forward with a potential constitutional amendment broadening existing, narrow provisions on fuel taxes to instead allow for those tax dollars to fund the broader category of “transportation infrastructure.”

The two Republican members of the committee, Sen. Scott Hammond and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, voted against the recommendation.

Although labor unions and construction associations expressed concern with the proposed change — stating that the state’s highway funding is already inadequate and should be increased, not divided — lawmakers on the committee said it was a necessary piece to modernize the state’s transportation funding structure and limit greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

The vote Wednesday is just the first step in a potential change to the state Constitution. Approval means the committee will submit the proposed change as a bill draft request, but it still would need to pass out of the 2021 and 2023 Legislatures before going on the ballot in the 2024 election for possible approval by voters.

Democratic Sen. Chris Brooks said a change to the constitutional language was “long overdue,” adding that lawmakers had a responsibility to update language added to the state’s Constitution in 1940 that he said no longer matched the state’s transportation priorities in 2020. 

“We had conversations with all the different (Regional Transportation Systems) and stakeholders and community groups, and we kept hitting a roadblock,” Brooks said. “The roadblock was the very strict and narrow language of the constitution, as it was proposed 83 years ago.” 

Urban transit funding and development have become increasingly prominent and pressing issues for state leaders in recent years, given expected population growth over the next decade and attempts by lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak to reduce Nevada’s share of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

Nevada is on track to continually reduce carbon emissions from electricity production over the next decade, but a state report issued in January 2020 indicated that its share of transportation-related emissions — now the largest single source of emissions from any industry sector — is projected to remain at constant levels.

While some steps have been taken to address transportation emissions — including Gov. Sisolak proposing the state adopt California’s standards for low and zero-emission vehicles — lawmakers and transportation leaders said Wednesday that the constitutional language limiting the use of gasoline fuel taxes was a roadblock to enhanced funding of other transportation infrastructure projects, such as urban transit or bike and pedestrian pathways.

“I think the only way, if we wanted to expand use of the funds for urban transit, the only way we would be able to do that is by changing the Constitution,” Nevada Department of Transportation Director Kristina Swallow said during the meeting. “I'm not a legal expert, but based on what I've read, and what I've heard from our legal team, that is the only way we would be able to specifically allow for transit infrastructure.” 

A recent analysis found Nevadans pay about 33.8 cents per gallon in state and local gasoline taxes, the 19th highest rate of any state.

But the initial version of the recommendation attracted a barrage of criticism from construction trade organizations and labor groups, who said they would oppose any attempt to move transportation funding away from road construction.

The Nevada State AFL-CIO went as far as to pass a resolution during its convention last month stating its opposition to any proposed constitutional changes to fuel tax expenditures and revenue, calling it a “primary driver” of highway construction jobs. 

“We feel that changing the Constitution to remove the guardrails on the spending of highway construction money is not the right way to go,” longtime labor lobbyist Danny Thompson said during the meeting. “We believe that if we want to dedicate money for transit, you'd need to pass something that would be earmarked for transit and take care of those problems. 

Swallow suggested that lawmakers could look at adding additional tax revenue sources to help “expand the pie” of transportation funding, especially if lawmakers move forward with the recommended constitutional change. 

That issue may come up through another recommendation approved by the committee on Wednesday to create a Department of Transportation-housed working group focused on transportation infrastructure funding. It’s set to run between 2021 and 2024 with plans to study the sustainability of current road funds, addressing greenhouse gas emissions and including the needs of all “transportation mode users,” including cyclists, pedestrians and transit users.

Republicans on the committee, however, said they were hesitant to agree to the “heavy lift” of a constitutional change without a sufficient plan in place for how to use fuel taxes in an expanded capacity, and would rather have a discussion about ways to increase transportation funding without cutting into the current road maintenance budget.

“I don't like to make too many changes that would jeopardize what we have to continue to maintain the highway funds or the highways the way they are, because you see crumbling infrastructure across the United States that inhibits us from actually maintaining the abilities to move our goods and services,” Hammond said. “I don't want to see that happen.”

Committee Chair Daniele Monroe-Moreno, a Democrat, said the core issue of trying to diversify the transportation sector beyond road construction and repair would continue to be an issue even if overall transportation funding was increased.

“Even if we came up with those additional revenue sources, we would still be handcuffed to what we could do with those additional revenue sources with the constitution as it's written now,” Monroe-Moreno said. “So I believe the simple language change to add in transportation and transit infrastructure would help move us towards the future.”

Other recommendations were accepted with less controversy, including: 

  • Drafting a letter to the governor and state agencies including the Public Utilities Commission and NV Energy stating support for an “integrated western energy market.”
  • Encouraging federal agencies to allocate additional funds for statewide light detection and ranging (LiDAR), which is high-resolution topographic data that can help “provide critical information on the distribution of faults and rock layers that host renewable energy resources.”
  • Draft a letter to the Nevada System of Higher Education, the state Department of Education and the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation to promote “education, communication and interest” in the state’s mining industry.

All three of those items were approved unanimously by the committee.

Once seen as frivolous, wildlife crossings now seen as a way to save bucks — and drivers

Every year, thousands of mule deer make the southeasterly trek from the snow-loaded Jarbidge Mountains to the Pequop Mountains across I-80 between Wells and West Wendover. For many years and many mule deer, the highway atop their migration corridor posed an existential threat. 

According to the Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW), collisions thinned the deer population by the dozens — if not the hundreds — as they attempted to cross I-80 or U.S. 93, from Wells to the Idaho border. It wasn’t just wildlife getting hurt. The Nevada Department of Transportation (NDOT) estimated that crashes were costing drivers millions. In some cases, they were fatal. 

In the early 2000s, state officials started taking notice.  

By 2006, wildlife and transportation officials began to discuss a longshot fix: animal crossings. At the time, the inconspicuous underpasses and overpasses — designed to blend in with the landscape — were viewed as costly projects that diverted funding from more important areas.

“After some of the first structures were constructed on Highway 93 by the [Nevada] Department of Transportation, we got beat up,” said Tony Wasley, who directs the state’s wildlife agency.

But “as those critics began to see the functionality of those structures,” Wasley said this week that “it was amazing to see the energy and the support from some of those same people that questioned the efficacy and the efficiency of the expenditures associated with those structures.”

Today the crossings are credited with helping thousands of animals migrate without being forced to risk a perilous sprint over the highway. Across the West, where busy highways crisscross swaths of open land, the structures are catching on as a way to reconnect fragmented stretches of wildlife habitat, offsetting the increasing pressures of development while keeping drivers safe.

An underpass designed to allow big game animals cross the highway without getting injured. (Photo courtesy of the Nevada Department of Transportation)

NDOT estimates that an average of 500 wildlife collisions each year account for about $19 million in property damage and injuries. The actual number could be higher. That estimate does not include the cost placed on emergency responders or a species’ intrinsic value to the land. 

Nova Simpson, a biological supervisor with the department, presented those numbers at the Governor’s Mansion on Tuesday as part of a summit aimed at reducing wildlife-vehicle crashes.

Compared to other states, Nevada was an early adopter of the crossings. The state completed its first project on U.S. 93 in 2010 at a cost of about $2.2 million. Over the next four years, NDOT found that more than 35,000 mule deer used the crossings on U.S. 93. Since then, Simpson has received regular calls from other states asking about funding and construction. 

“Other states are definitely jumping on the bandwagon and doing these projects,” she said.

Across Nevada, the threats to wildlife and drivers vary.

In and around Reno, a big challenge are the feral horses that roam the Virginia Range, often seen crossing USA Parkway near the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center. Near Boulder City, the focus is on bighorn sheep, and near Elko, the department is still watching the mule deer. 

To prioritize and effectively target crossings to the most affected areas, the agency has created heat maps that combine geospatial data on animal movement, carcasses and crashes. These maps make it easy to see where the most pressing challenges exist when it comes to collisions. 

As the issues vary across the state, so do the solutions. Different species react to the crossings in different ways. In general, Simpson said prey tend to travel on the overpasses, shying away from the enclosed environment created by underpasses, which are preferred by predators.

An aerial view of the Pequop Summit animal crossing on I-80. (Courtesy of the Nevada Department of Transportation)

Brian Wakeling, administrator for NDOW's big game division, said “getting in the mind of wildlife can be challenging.” But through data collection, the department has a good sense of how different herds move and how they might react to the crossings. 

“Trying to keep herds intact is important for a variety of reasons,” he said. 

Migration corridors allow big game species to be in the right habitat at the right time, Wakeling explained. That movement is critical for their nutrition and their ability to raise healthy offspring. 

The goal of Tuesday’s summit was to expand the program by bringing more developers and partners into the planning process. Simpson said that animal crossings are increasingly being tacked onto planning documents, including environmental impact statements. Wildlife crossings were integrated into the construction of the Boulder City Bypass and USA Parkway near Reno.

“Simply having everyone at the table from the very beginning — developers, local agencies, and transportation agencies — we can develop innovations to help protect human safety, protect wildlife and habitat, maximize development opportunities and reduce costs to taxpayers,” said Kristina Swallow, who directs the transportation department, during a speech at the summit.

Three mule deer in Carson City. (Cody Schroeder/Nevada Department of Wildlife)

Funding remains one of the most significant impediments to building the projects. Costs can vary depending on whether the crossings are incorporated into original plans or added later. 

The Boulder City Bypass crossings had a construction price tag of about $1.6 million, according to an NDOT spokeswoman. Some of those expenses were absorbed as part of the costs in the larger highway upgrade. On the higher end, a project to build a series of wildlife crossings near the Pequop range on I-80 cost around $20 million, in part because of the scale and timing. 

Funding is one area where the federal government could step in. 

Past projects have relied on state and federal dollars from a variety of sources, including the Highway Safety Program and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. In addition to new funding through a Department of Interior secretarial order, the federal government could make more funding available through Congress. As part of its transportation bill, the Senate has also been considering the creation of a pilot program that could open up $250 million in funding.

As a result of the secretarial order, Nevada received $287,000 to study big game migration corridors. Some of that funding has helped NDOW track antelope and map their movements.

About 1,000 pronghorn during migration near Elko. (Nevada Department of Wildlife)

Car collisions are not the only threat facing Nevada’s mule deer population. 

The population — and its habitat — faces disruption and fragmentation from drought, invasive species, wildfire, mining and residential development. NDOW has created monitoring plans, tracked mule deer migration and worked to restore critical habitat along its migration route. 

Wakeling said that a lot of species in Nevada are healthy. And in many cases, their populations are on the upswing. But he cited mule deer as one species that has had a “tough time” with their herd numbers stable to slightly declining. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific cause, he added that they can be acutely susceptible to disruptions in their century-old migration paths.

“They are some of the creatures probably most affected by their inability to move,” Wakeling said at the summit. “They are the most predictable on where they’re going to move, when they’re going to move, and they have very limited adaptability to change where they’re going.”

A mule deer crossing Old Harrison Pass Road in the Ruby Mountain range
A mule deer crosses Old Harrison Pass Road in the Ruby Mountain range south of Elko on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Lawmakers approved millions to replace decades-old state planes with ‘Penthouse on the 5,000th Floor’

Like almost every other state, Nevada owns and operates private aircraft, used primarily to ferry Nevada Department of Transportation employees between Las Vegas and Carson City.

But unlike some states that have distanced themselves from publicly owned planes as a show of fiscal restraint, Nevada is moving forward with plans to buy two new private aircraft and bump up pay for four state pilots. The transportation department (NDOT) quietly won approval from lawmakers to spend nearly $14 million on planes, which represent a significant upgrade of the state’s current fleet: a nine-seat jet and five-seat turboprop aircraft constructed during the Reagan administration.

As part of the department’s responsibility for the planning, construction, operation and maintenance of the state’s 5,400 miles of highway and 1,200 bridges, the planes are used to transport state transportation workers, engineers, administrators and others in a more efficient and cost-effective manner than commercial flight or vehicle travel,” NDOT spokeswoman Meg Ragonese said in an email.

In presentations to lawmakers during the legislative session and at a recent Interim Finance Committee meeting, NDOT officials testified that use of the planes saves the department significant sums compared to commercial air travel, and that the purchase of new planes would significantly cut down on maintenance costs and eventually pay for themselves within six to seven years.

Lawmakers in both parties approved the spending request with no opposition, citing the cost savings and the fact that the funds come out of the Highway Fund — funded primarily by gasoline taxes — and not the state’s primary budget account. 

In response to a detailed list of questions from The Nevada Independent about the department’s flight operations, NDOT also announced it would change its policy of allowing other state employees to use state planes as needed without having to reimburse for the cost of the flight — a privilege that several elected officials, including Democratic Attorney General Aaron Ford and Republican Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, have taken advantage of this year.

Here’s a look at what new planes the state is set to buy, and how state-run air travel operates:

New planes

Both planes currently operated by NDOT were manufactured in the 1980s; a nine-seat Cessna Citation II 550 that is 31 years old and a five-seat Aero Commander 840 built 37 years ago. The Commander is also used to conduct aerial mapping of the state’s transportation infrastructure.

But in NDOT’s 2019 budget request, the agency sought approval of $13.9 million in funds to purchase two new planes; a 10-seat Pilatus PC-24 (described by the manufacturer as “Like a Penthouse on the 5,000th Floor”) to replace the Citation, and an 11-seat Beechcraft King Air 350 to replace the Aero Commander. 

In addition to the increased capacity, the department told lawmakers that the new planes would “achieve fuel cost savings, reduce noise pollution, streamline flight times, increase seat capacity, as well as improve recruitment and retention of pilots.”  Most notably, the department estimated it would save an estimated $2.3 million over the next two years on maintenance costs with the new planes, and receive several years of warranty service; a significant upgrade given the age of the current fleet.

“With both existing airplanes out of production for many years now, some parts and/or components are no longer available new while others are only available used or rebuilt,” the agency wrote.

But the new aircraft come at a cost; in addition to the legislatively-approved $13.9 million, NDOT  received additional approval last month from members of the Interim Finance Committee to spend an additional $1.69 million because of the rising cost of the planes since lawmakers approved spending the initial sum of money during the legislative session.

“Buyers are placing orders for delivery 2-3 years from now, at full price,” Chief Pilot Scott Hofmeyer wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “So, it is important to secure a production spot as soon as possible if a buyer wants an airplane that is highly desirable. There are many very good airplanes being produced today that are years away from being delivered.”

It’s not clear whether the decision on which planes to purchase was exempted from the state’s normal bidding and state purchasing requirements; NDOT’s chief pilot did an analysis of options based on cost and various functions and abilities of available planes, and the department said in a statement that the “aircraft can only be purchased through the manufacturer, (so) department staff are handling the purchasing process.”

The new planes weren't the only aviation-related budget increase approved by lawmakers; NDOT also requested and received pay bumps for the state’s chief pilot (from $104,540 a year to $117,453) and for three other NDOT-employed pilots, in part as a way to make the department a “more competitive employer” and help with hiring and retaining pilots “who do not prefer to fly old airplanes at below-market salaries,” according to the department’s budget request. The median salary for a commercial pilot is just over $130,000 a year.

Funding for the new planes and raises isn’t coming out of the state’s general fund, the account that funds almost all government operations from health care to education. Instead, the cost of flying and fueling the planes comes out of the Highway Fund, which is made up of gasoline taxes, DMV fees and federal transportation funds (fund revenue in 2017 eclipsed $1.2 billion).

State plane travel

The individual who traveled most on state-owned planes throughout 2019 is NDOT director Kristina Swallow, appointed to her position in January 2019. 

According to eight months of flight logs obtained by The Nevada Independent through a public records request, Swallow took 12 flights on the state-owned five-seat Aero Commander 840 between January and August of 2019, the most of any state official over that time period (previous NDOT director Rudy Malfabon took one flight in January 2019).

Swallow’s flights fit the pattern described by NDOT in 2013 to the state’s transportation board; the planes are used primarily by NDOT staff and employees, and available for use as available for other state agencies and purposes, such as last-minute transport for officials or prisoners and mapping using high quality aerial photographs. Because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the department has historically not charged other agencies for travel via the state-owned planes.

Over the eight-month period, the 38-year-old Aero Commander took 79 flights, primarily between Las Vegas and Carson City but many out of rural areas from Ely, Tonopah, Panaca and Battle Mountain. The state’s other plane, a Cessna Citation II, has been grounded all year because of maintenance issues.

NDOT said 78 percent of the Citation’s flights since July 2016 have been from its home base in Carson City to Las Vegas, while the Aero Commander had made 43 percent of its trips to the state’s major population center.

Other than Swallow, most of the other individuals who went on state plane flights were mid-level NDOT employees and photographers/cartographers, including:

  • Robert Lee Bonner, a former Douglas County Commissioner and current planner for NDOT. He took 11 flights on the state plane.
  • Brad Horn, a freelance Reno photographer, who took 11 flights on the state plane.
  • Michael Murphy Glover, who according to TransparentNevada.com is a transportation planner and analyst for NDOT. He took 10 flights on the state plane.

Of the 164 individuals who reported taking flights on a state plane during the first eight months of 2019, only a handful were not directly employed by NDOT, and the vast majority (more than 100 individuals) only took a single flight on the aircraft. 

Of the non-NDOT employees who rode the plane, Ford, elected in 2018, took four flights on the state plane (two in January and two in March, each from Las Vegas to Carson City). 

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office confirmed that Ford, like representatives from other state agencies, had not reimbursed NDOT for the flights. But she said that he only took them when seats were available and as a way to save time and resources.

“Using the state plane, instead of flying commercially, is a means for AG Ford and this office to save taxpayer dollars,” spokeswoman Monica Moazez said in an email.

Cegavske also took one flight on March 11, from Las Vegas to Carson City. A spokeswoman for her office confirmed Cegavske had also not reimbursed the department for the flight, and that she made the trip to attend a meeting in Carson City. Gov. Steve Sisolak, who took multiple trips back to Las Vegas from Carson City during the legislative session, was not listed on any flight logs for use of the plane.

NDOT said in an email that it planned to change its policies going forward.

“While seats have been made available to other State employees in the past at no charge, non-highway funded agencies will be asked to pay a per-seat charge to cover the cost of operating the planes to reimburse the Highway Fund,” the agency wrote.

Commercial versus state planes

Although it sounds counterintuitive, NDOT staff say that use of a private plane is more cost-effective than booking airfare through a commercial airline. NDOT estimates that between the price of round-trip tickets, lost time getting to and from the airport and other costs, the state saves anywhere from $200 to $700 on each employee’s travel cost when using state planes.

According to an analysis provided to The Nevada Independent by the department, the ticket cost for a commercial (Southwest) flight between Reno and Las Vegas was $487.96, less than the cost per passenger for the state-owned Aero Commander ($562.12). But the analysis also takes into account time lost during travel to and through the airport, estimating that total travel time is higher on commercial flights (6.67 hours) compared to travel on state-owned planes (2.5 hours).

Including travel time factors, the department estimated a round-trip between Carson City and Las Vegas costs $915 per employee on commercial airlines, compared to $715 for the existing state plane. The estimated costs decreases to $406 per passenger with the newer aircraft, because of better fuel efficiency and faster speeds.

The cost of round trips to Elko are even more cost-effective on the state plane that using commercial flights — an estimated $352 per passenger cost and two-hour travel time on the state-owned Commander, compared to a $1,127 per passenger cost and 10-hour travel time using a commercial flight. 

But why are the flights necessary, given the widespread use of videoconferencing and other telecommunication technologies?

Swallow told lawmakers during a March budget committee meeting that many of the 1,800 NDOT employees were based in Carson City, and needed to fly because face-to-face meetings with “stakeholders, funding partners, planning partners, or contractors” were necessary or not feasible to hold over videoconferencing. State-owned planes are also able to travel to NDOT’s regional offices in rural communities such as Tonopah, Ely and Elko, which saves the department and its employees hours of time that would otherwise be spent driving. 

Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal, who chaired the budget subcommittee that reviewed NDOT’s budget for the two new planes, said lawmakers were receptive to the department’s request and wanted to move away from the older and more costly aircraft.

“We as a committee thought a 38-year-old plane and 32-year-old was pretty old for the state to be maintaining it,” she said.

Other states

It’s difficult to ascertain how many state governments own and operate their own private aircraft, but a 2012 study indicated that in total, state governments own and operate about 263 aircraft, compared to 1,264 owned by the federal government and 402 owned by counties and local governments.

Governors in other states — who sometimes have a more direct relationship with state-owned aircraft — have taken a variety of approaches toward using government-owned aircraft, with many electing to sell state planes as a show of fiscal restraint. 

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat with an estimated net worth of $3.2 billion, personally pays for private flights out of state. In one of his first moves after taking office in 2019, Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt ordered the sale of the state airplane (something that media outlets pointed out had been done in 1993, with lawmakers quietly approving funding for another plane three years later). Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens sold one of that state’s airplanes in 2017.

But some states have moved in opposite directions; Florida officials recently approved spending $15.5 million to purchase a nine-passenger jet for Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, after the state’s former governor sold all state-owned planes.

Nevada puts a bow on largest public works project in state history

NDOT Director Kristina Swallow speaks during the Project Neon Grand Finale event in downtown Las Vegas on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019.

The Nevada Department of Transportation, elected officials and others involved in the project on Thursday celebrated the completion of Project NEON, a $1 billion endeavor in Las Vegas dubbed the “largest public works job in Nevada history,”

Politicians including Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen gathered for the grand finale of the construction project that was, according to Nevada Department of Transportation Director Kristina Swallow, “20 years in the making.” It entailed a four-mile widening of Interstate 15 between U.S. Highway 95 and Sahara in downtown Las Vegas.

“On average, there were three crashes a day in the Spaghetti Bowl, and with Project NEON, there’s not only a safety concern for Nevadans, but we are helping with some of the congestion at the economic center of the valley,” Swallow said when asked about the justification for a project of this price and size.

Sen. Jacky Rosen speaks during the Project Neon Grand Finale event in downtown Las Vegas on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. was awarded the $559.4 million contract for Project NEON in November 2015. Project NEON was a “legacy project” for Kiewit, as the company was in charge of the original construction of Interstate 15 in 1968. The project created 4,000 direct, indirect, and induced local jobs (those created when people working on the job spend money in the community).

The construction has addressed the state’s busiest stretch of freeway, with the I-15 accommodating 300,000 cars daily and 25,000 lane changes hourly. 

From left, radio personality Chet Buchanan, Sen. Jacky Rosen, NDOT Director Kristina Swallow, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman, FHWA Field Services West Director Peter Osborn, and Rep Dina Titus stand on stage during the Project Neon Grand Finale event in downtown Las Vegas on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The actual construction of the project consisted of a new 20-mile-plus network of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, 63 lane-miles of concrete and asphalt paving, 29 new bridges, and 10 miles of drainage improvements. It also added North-South surface street connections to alleviate congestion and provide more streamlined access to downtown Las Vegas.

With Project NEON complete, there are still many more improvements in the works for the state’s highways, Swallow said. The Nevada Department of Transportation is getting to work on some badly needed projects over the next few years, including the Tropicana bridge and feasibility studies for the I-15 between Flamingo and Sahara. 

“There are plenty of projects,” she said.

Sisolak's calendar of first month shows meetings with union leaders, top officials

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s first month in office was dominated by meetings with top state and federal officials and with the individuals and groups that helped elect him last year.

According to a copy of Sisolak’s official calendar, the new governor held a slew of meetings and calls throughout January and the first week of February with education and business leaders, union heads, one Trump administration official and with California billionaire and Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer.

The Nevada Independent filed a records request for Sisolak’s calendar for the month of January and the first week of February on Feb. 7. Although scheduled meetings aren’t confirmation that a meeting actually happened or what topics were discussed, a look at the governor’s calendar provides valuable insight into which individuals Sisolak met with and heard from as he began planning for his first legislative session as governor.

"During the governor’s first weeks in office, he met face-to-face with all 63 legislators, signed a landmark bill to close the gun background check loophole, established a task force on sexual harassment, and more," Sisolak spokeswoman Helen Kalla said in an email. "Additionally, the governor has traveled around the state to meet Nevadans where they are – from Elko to Las Vegas to tribal communities across Northern Nevada. "

Here’s who Sisolak met with during his first month in office:

Interest Groups

Sisolak’s calendar shows a meeting on Jan. 22 with one political adviser — Megan Jones, a former political director for Sen. Harry Reid and a longtime Democratic political consultant involved in multiple ballot questions and dozens of races for statewide and legislative candidates. Her firm, Hilltop Public Solutions, also helped run the campaign for Question 1 in 2016, requiring background checks on most private gun sales and transfers. The measure was never implemented despite being approved by voters because of the FBI’s refusal to conduct the background checks.

Earlier this month, Sisolak signed SB143 into law — a fix of the 2016 voter-approved initiative that requires the state and not the federal government to conduct the background checks. Jones didn’t return an email seeking comment as to the purpose of the meeting.

On the education side, Sisolak also reported meeting with Clark County Education Association union leader John Vellardita and Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara on Jan. 30. Sisolak’s proposed $8.8 billion budget includes a 3 percent raise for teachers and upwards of $156 million more in state funds for education, the bulk of which will go to the school district.

Vellardita, whose union strongly supported Sisolak in both the primary and general elections, declined to say what was discussed at the meeting beyond reiterating that CCEA and the district will work together on issues that matter to both, including a weighted school funding formula.

A meeting like this reflects that intent,” he said.

The new governor also scheduled a call with Tom Steyer, the California billionaire whose NextGen America organization spent millions of dollars to run ads and registered voters to assist Nevada Democrats in the 2018 election. Steyer — who also helped fund ballot measures raising renewable energy production standards and requiring automatic voter registration at the DMV — was unable to communicate with Sisolak or other candidates because of rules on campaign coordination and spoke with the new governor about his organization’s accomplishments and goals.

“They discussed NextGen America’s work in 2018 which led to historic turnout among young voters and the passage of Question 6— and NextGen’s commitment to continuing that work in 2019 and beyond,” NextGen America spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier said in an email.

The calendar also shows a scheduled meeting with AFSCME President Lee Saunders on Feb. 4 in the governor’s Carson City office. During the 2018 campaign, the union spent more than $3.7 million through a PAC aimed at boosting Sisolak and hitting his Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt. Sisolak has embraced and highlighted one of the union’s top goals — collective bargaining for state employees — in his State of the State speech.

A spokesperson for the union said Saunders and Sisolak discussed “their shared belief that public service workers, like all Nevadans, deserve the freedom to negotiate a fair return on their work.”

The governor also reported meeting with representatives of electric car manufacturer Tesla on Feb. 5.

Sisolak also reported meeting with UNITE HERE president D. Taylor on Feb. 8. The union’s local branch, the Culinary Union Local 226, played a huge role in Democratic turnout operations in the 2018 election, sending 1.8 million mail pieces, knocking on thousands of doors and making thousands of calls to support Democratic candidates.

Bethany Khan, a spokeswoman for the Culinary Union, declined to answer an emailed question as to the purpose of the meeting.

Not all of the meetings were directly related to pressing issues. The governor scheduled a meeting in Las Vegas with Jan Jones Blackhurst, the former Las Vegas mayor and Caesars Entertainment executive on Jan. 18, but Blackhurst said the scheduled meeting was more a chance to catch up rather than talk about any particular issue.

“It was more of a social visit than anything else,” she said.

State and federal government

Sisolak’s first month in office was peppered with scheduled meetings with top state and federal officials.

In one of his first meetings scheduled on his calendar, the governor met with Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto at the state party’s offices in Las Vegas. His first call with a member of President Donald Trump’s administration came on Feb. 5, with acting Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt (nominated just a day prior to the call), as part of an introductory call and brief overview of state land and wildlife issues.

He also reported meeting with the state’s lone Republican statewide official, Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, on Feb. 4 — the first day of the legislative session.

The governor’s calendar also shows a slew of meetings with top state education officials, including several members of the State Board of Education.

He scheduled calls with three members of the board — Mark Newburn on Feb. 4, Robert Blakley and Tamara Hudson on Feb. 5, and a meeting with David Carter on Feb. 7. Department spokesman Greg Bortolin said the governor “reached out to members of the Board of Education that he did not know and introduced himself.”

The calendar also shows scheduled calls with three senior Nevada Department of Transportation staff — Tracy Larkin, Bill Hoffman and Cole Mortensen — on Jan. 24. Sisolak recommended that Kristina Swallow, a former City of Las Vegas engineer, head the transportation department in late January.

Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Illia said in an email that the meetings were “information-gathering meetings for the governor to learn more about how the department runs and hear feedback from its employees.”

Sisolak also met with every state lawmaker for short meetings during the first week of the legislative session — including 30 scheduled ten-minute meetings with legislators on Feb. 26 in their respective offices. The day prior, Feb. 5, he scheduled short meetings with Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Senate Majority Leader Kelvin Atkinson in their respective offices.

The calendar also sheds some light into the governor’s process for appointments. He scheduled a meeting with former Eighth Judicial District Court discovery commissioner Bonnie Bulla on Feb. 7, six days before his office announced that she would be appointed to a vacant seat on the Nevada Court of Appeals. He also scheduled a meeting with fellow court applicants Tracie Lindeman on Feb. 5 and District Court Judge Jerry Weise on Feb. 6, as well as a meeting with Nevada Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Gibbons on Jan. 29.

Sisolak Calendar by Riley Snyder on Scribd