Freshman Orientation: Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong

As in sessions past, The Nevada Independent is publishing a series of profiles featuring all the new lawmakers in the state. This is the first installment of more than a dozen. Check back in coming days for additional stories on new legislators' backgrounds, interests and policy positions.

ASSEMBLYWOMAN SHONDRA SUMMERS-ARMSTRONG

  • Freshman Democrat from Las Vegas who succeeds Democratic Assemblyman William McCurdy II, who is now a Clark County commissioner representing District D.
  • Represents District 6, which includes the area south and east of the North Las Vegas Airport and north of U.S. Route 95.
  • District 6 is Democratic (60 percent Democratic, 10 percent Republican and 24 percent nonpartisan in the 2020 election).
  • Summers-Armstrong defeated one other candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary with 73.6 percent of the vote.
  • She then defeated Republican Katie Duncan in the general election, carrying 80.4 percent of the vote.
  • She will sit on the Growth and Infrastructure, Health and Human Services, and Judiciary committees.

FAMILY AND EDUCATION

In 1993, Summers-Armstrong met her husband, Carl Armstrong, while she was working as a judicial assistant for Addeliar Dell Guy III, the first Black District Court judge in Nevada. She has three children, two from a previous marriage. 

Though Summers-Armstrong has taken college courses, she said her “degrees have really come from life and living.”

CAREER

Summers-Armstrong works as a management analyst with the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada and is an executive board member of SEIU Nevada, a union that represents thousands of health care workers and public employees in the state.

PROFILE

As a sixth grader, Summers-Armstrong told her history teacher that she wanted to be the president of the United States. He responded that Summers-Armstrong couldn’t be president because she was a female and she was too conservative and religious to hold the office.

She was crushed.

“I think we have to be really careful what we tell children,” Summers-Armstrong said. “I may not be the president of the United States and under the circumstances, I would not want that job, but I can be a representative for my community.”

She attributes her passion, drive and community-oriented mindset to her family, especially her grandmother, who attended college as a 17-year-old in the Jim Crow South to become a teacher. Summers-Armstrong described fond memories of her grandmother sharing stories and encouraging her to follow what was “good and fun and right, and to just enjoy and to love.”

“[My grandmothers] showed us that even if you come from humble beginnings, you can do some great things and you can be smart and you can make something out of absolutely nothing and make it taste and look good and do it with class,” Summers-Armstrong said. “I think about them all the time.”

Summers-Armstrong grew up in the Bay Area of Northern California and remembers hearing the noise of football games from the Raider Stadium, although she never watched one live. At 18, after graduating she married a man in the Air Force and then moved to Germany for a four-year stint, during which time she had two sons.

From Germany, the family moved to Las Vegas, and though she and her husband divorced, Summers-Armstrong decided to stay.

“Nevada wouldn’t let me go,” she said with a smile.

While she was a judicial assistant, Summers-Armstrong met Armstrong, and the two have been married for 26 years and have another son together.

Before she became an assemblywoman, Summers-Armstrong spent her free time attending city council and planning commission meetings with her husband, working to improve her community in West Las Vegas.

Though Summers-Armstrong was focused on improving the communities she found herself in, she did not seriously consider running for public office until she started as an executive administrative assistant in the streets and highways program in Las Vegas’ metropolitan planning department. 

In the 25 years since joining the Regional Transportation Commission, Summers-Armstrong said she gained deeper insight and interest in public works projects and community planning and believed she could make a greater contribution to Nevada working as a legislator, so she ran for office.

“I'm hopeful that I will be that type of legislator that I will be able to think futuristically, help come up with ideas that can help my community,” she said, “so that as money comes, opportunity comes, we can be ready to implement, and make our community better.”

Summers-Armstrong likened the beginning of legislative session to the first day of high school, and noted that though she’s nervous, she’s excited to learn and participate in the legislative process on behalf of her constituents.

Some of her main priorities this upcoming session include improving access to health care and education, as well as increasing job opportunities, are necessitated in part by the global pandemic. But she is also hoping to see bail reform pass this legislative cycle and is working on legislation surrounding summary evictions and doulas — people who support women through childbirth.

Regardless of what may happen this coming session, Summers-Armstrong said she is keeping an open mind heading into the session and remembering the lessons she learned from her grandmother.

“I may not be Barack Obama, but I can be the best Shondra I can be,” Summers-Armstrong said.

ON THE ISSUES

Election integrity

Summers-Armstrong rejects the idea pushed by Donald Trump that there was widespread voting fraud, noting Nevada’s high turnout in the 2020 election.

“We have people who were previously incarcerated, who had done their time, now with an opportunity to vote,” she said. “That's not voter fraud. That's freedom. That is participating in their civic duty.”

Criminal justice reform

Before the 2019 session, Summers-Armstrong worked on bail reform legislation that did not make it out of Legislature. But it’s the end result that matters, she said, adding that there is an interim committee on criminal justice and she knows the lawmakers who are part of the committee are “on it.”

“It is of the least amount of concern who gets it done. The most important thing is that it gets done,” she said. “So my job is to learn, hear, listen, and then support legislation. That's going to move the things that I believe are important forward.”

Changes around bail, how long people wait without a hearing and alternatives to cash bail are critical to the community, Summers-Armstrong said.

“People don't have $5,000, $10,000, $15,000 to just peel off and pay cash bail,” Summers-Armstrong said. “If there are alternatives for these minor non-violent infractions for people to be able to get to work, so they're not losing their cars and their apartments, that's more equitable.”

Climate change

Climate change disproportionately affects lower-income communities of color, the assemblywoman said, adding that many of her constituents live in the central part of Las Vegas, are not wealthy and are most vulnerable to pollution and other hazards posed by climate change.

Though she supports the state’s goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, Summers-Armstrong said that addressing climate change has to include voices that are often unrepresented.

“You gotta listen to everybody. What works in one community may not work in others and we gotta figure out how we can get some participation that is equitable for everybody,” she said. “Everybody can contribute to getting to net zero in the best way they can.”

As passenger counts dwindle on Strip buses, the RTC eyes innovation while closely monitoring financials

On the day Victoria Preciado saw double-decker buses roll down Las Vegas Boulevard, she quit her job as a hotel shuttle driver and imagined herself behind the wheel of a new vehicle.

She turned that vision — and spontaneous decision — into a career. For the past 11 years, Preciado has driven the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada’s iconic two-story buses that traverse the casino-lined roadway. They’re formally called the Deuce On The Strip, but Preciado has a different way of describing the mammoth buses. She said it’s like “driving a Volkswagen on steroids.”

Four days a week she commandeers the Deuce, answering tourists’ questions along the way. Preciado drives the RTC’s Downtown Loop, a free shuttle service, on her fifth day of work.

“I get an office with a view,” Preciado said.

Victoria Preciado drives an RTC bus in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

Her buses haven’t been as full in recent years, though. Preciado estimates the Deuce buses are at 60 percent capacity most days, down from the heyday of 90 percent. The reason: ride-share companies such as Uber and Lyft, which have been siphoning riders who prefer door-to-door service over a public transit bus that makes multiple stops.

“There was a time not very long where we were seeing a profit along the Strip, and, in the transit industry, there’s really no such thing as a profit,” said Tina Quigley, chief executive officer of the RTC.

The RTC’s bus route in the resort corridor — from downtown Las Vegas to the south end of the Strip — was one of the only profitable lines in the United States, she said. The route generated a yearly $6 million profit, which the agency used to subsidize other residential routes.

Not anymore. For the first time since the double-decker buses made their Strip debut in 2005, the RTC started subsidizing the resort corridor route in the most recent fiscal year. Ridership and revenue have fallen dramatically since September 2015, when ride-share companies legally began operating in Southern Nevada. 

“Do I have any takers for Fashion Show, Wynn, Encore?” Preciado said over the bus intercom on a recent morning. 

No one moves.

“Continuing on.”

The bus accelerates forward, on to the next stop.

***

Paulette Doolittle boarded the double-decker bus driven by Preciado just after 7 a.m. She caught the bus at the Bonneville Transit Center en route to her job as a porter at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Her shift starts at 8 a.m., but Doolittle hopped on a bus near her northwest valley home at 6:25 a.m. 

She carpools to work with friends some days, but if not, this is her commute. 

“It’s all right; it’s convenient,” Doolittle said. “It might take a little longer to get where you’re going, but it’s okay. There’s some good, and there’s some bad.”

Paulette Doolittle rides an RTC bus to work in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

While tourists may use the bus for sightseeing, Doolittle represents a sizable share of passengers who count on public transit for their commute. Based on the RTC’s latest “Origin and Destination Survey,” about 60 percent of trips are work-related while the other 40 percent are for recreational, medical, social, shopping or educational purposes.

Anthony Paradiso, 49, fits the latter description. On the same morning, he was riding a bus that travels east and west on Flamingo Road. He had just finished donating blood.

“It’s easier for me,” he said. “I don’t like to drive.”

Since fiscal year 2015, Strip ridership has decreased by 3.3 million passenger trips. General market ridership, meanwhile, grew by 3.7 million passenger trips during that time frame.

M.J .Maynard, the RTC’s deputy CEO, said the residential ridership increase is bucking the national trend and is likely tied to population growth. Additionally, nine of the agency’s 39 fixed routes are frequent, meaning buses arrive every 15 minutes, which Maynard said has been another draw for customers. The RTC hopes to expand its offering of frequent routes.

Residential public transit is far from a moneymaker, though. For every dollar the RTC spends operating those routes, it only receives about 40 cents in fare revenue, which Quigley said is about double the national average but still not profitable.

Year-to-year comparisons show the revenue hit that occurred as passengers flocked to ride-share companies in lieu of public transit. Consider the month of October: Strip revenue stood at nearly $2.4 million in October of fiscal year 2016. The next year October revenue had fallen to $2.1 million, followed by $1.9 million in fiscal year 2018 and $1.7 million in fiscal year 2019.

RTC officials acknowledge it’s difficult to compete with the brand recognition of companies such as Uber and Lyft. Stickers featuring their respective black and pink logos grace the windshields of so many vehicles dropping off or picking up tourists along the Strip. 

“Those are globally known brands,” Quigley said. “They already have some familiarity with the app.”

The RTC has an app, too, as well as ticket vending machines scattered across the tourist corridor, but the trick is building awareness. During the most recent fiscal year, the agency spent $300,000 to market and advertise its transit system and services.

The transportation agency also employs 30 “transit ambassadors” donning blue shirts who help customers at certain high-traffic bus stops. Need to know where or how to buy a bus ticket? They can help. Need directions to a tourism landmark? They can help with that, too.

“That’s part of our marketing,” Maynard said. “They’re boots on the street.”

But for all those efforts, Strip ridership sometimes boils down to serendipity. Just ask Scott and Ava Rodda, visitors from Adelaide, Australia, who recently boarded the Strip & Downtown Express (SDX) bus at a stop near the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. 

Their destination: the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop (as seen on “Pawn Stars”) and the Premium Outlets downtown.

Their reason for choosing public transit: “We literally stumbled across it when we were walking,” Scott Rodda said, “and we thought it would be a really cool way to see the Strip.”

People ride the bus in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

***

Declining revenue — at least for the time being — hasn’t led to any service reductions. The agency isn’t cutting or adding any service routes for fiscal year 2020, which began July 1.

The RTC, however, predicts fare revenue in the Strip corridor will continue its downward slide and decrease by 5 percent this fiscal year. General market revenue is expected to increase by 1 percent. Quigley said the transportation agency plans to make quarterly presentations to its board about transit ridership and revenue.

“We are very concerned and It is fluid,” she said. “We don’t want anything to be a surprise to our board. If we have to cut routes, we don’t want that to be a surprise.”

RTC officials said data would drive any decisions regarding service changes, which could include cutting route length, curbing bus frequency or eliminating routes. If financial circumstances get dire, Quigley said the board would consider a ballot question essentially asking voters whether they’d approve a tax increase to maintain current transit services.

But the agency is hardly resting on its laurels as the transportation industry evolves.

Last month, the RTC launched an on-demand service called “Trip to Strip,” in which an 11-passenger van shuttles people to various locations within the Strip corridor. If it sounds eerily similar to the likes of ride-share, that’s the point: The agency is testing this form of microtransit as customers gravitate toward transportation they can arrange with the tap of a finger.

So far, “Trip to Strip” ridership has grown by double digits every week, Maynard said.

The agency also has partnered directly with Lyft to ensure smoother commutes for Southern Nevada residents — specifically, those working at the Northgate Distribution Center in North Las Vegas. Under a pilot program created late last year, employees of Fanatics, a sports merchandising company, can use Lyft at a reduced rate for first- and last-mile service from 13 specified RTC bus stops. In other words, employees take public transit as far as they can to their job and then hail ride-share for the final leg. 

An RTC bus approaches a bust stop in Las Vegas on Wednesday, July 17, 2019. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

The Northgate Distribution Center, which houses a Fanatics distribution center, sits in an area not served by the RTC’s fixed-route transit system. Per the partnership, Lyft provides service at a reduced rate while the RTC subsidizes $1 per trip. Fanatics then picks up the remaining tab for employees who use Lyft to get from designated bus stops to the job site.

The transportation agency also has been piloting ride-share partnerships for paratransit, which serves residents who have physical or cognitive disabilities. RTC officials consider it a win-win because of its potential to reduce costs while also providing more personalized, on-demand service. As it stands now, each paratransit trip costs the agency about $35 per passenger. 

Quigley, the region’s transportation guru, doesn’t expect the innovation to slow down. She considers it a necessity.

“Obviously, the business model of the fixed route where it stops every quarter of a mile is something that is going to be challenged moving forward, recognizing that there are cost-effective options that are more efficient,” she said. “I feel really strongly that just because we’re government doesn’t mean we have the ability to sit back and let other business plans evolve without us trying to challenge our own business plans and model.”

In the meantime, the Deuce buses will remain a fixture on the Strip, stopping roughly every 15 minutes at most casinos.

LVCVA announces partnership with Musk’s Boring Company for convention center transit project

Las Vegas’ future could hold a new underground mass transit system — but it’s no subway.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced a partnership with the Elon Musk-linked Boring Company Wednesday that would see an underground tunnel connect the sprawling Las Vegas Convention Center campus end-to-end by the time a new expansion is slated to open in early 2021.

Started by Musk after the billionaire found himself stuck in L.A. traffic, the company has sought to ease increasing traffic congestion through the construction of what it calls “The Loop,” a system of tunnels essentially meant to create an underground highway.

Speaking at a news conference, LVCVA president and CEO Steve Hill, who negotiated with Musk to bring the Tesla gigafactory to Northern Nevada, said the small-scale convention loop will cut down travel times for convention-goers, who might otherwise have to walk up to two miles once the expansion is complete.

“That's not possible for some, and certainly not convenient for many,” Hill said. “So contemplating a people-mover system on the campus has been a part of the conversation during the entire design and certainly through the construction of the convention center expansion.”

Like the company’s existing tunnel in Hawthorne, California, the system would utilize a number of individual electric vehicles that are sped along small, concrete-lined tunnels. The details of which vehicles the LVCVA system will use hasn’t yet been finalized, but Hill said the options range from using Tesla Model 3 sedans, Model X SUVs or even a 16-person tram chassis.

Potential LVCC Loop Station Locations. Final configuration to be determined by the LVCVA Board. (Courtesy The Boring Company)

In total, Hill said he expects between 4,400 and 11,000 people per hour to utilize anywhere from 90 to 140 cars connecting between three or four stops.

But exactly how the company’s tunnels have functioned has shifted over the last three years. Though early concepts focused on running individual cars through the tunnels on electric sleds, Musk later tweeted a new focus on transit for pedestrians and bikers over commuter vehicles.

At a December 2018 test in Hawthorne where the technology was revealed for the first time, the sleds had been ditched. Instead, electric, foldable guide-wheels sped a Model X through a 1.14 mile tunnel at a bumpy 40 miles per hour — far short of the promised 150 mph top speed.

But the company has said future tunnels will be smoother, and speed estimates haven’t changed either. In Las Vegas, Hill said the convention center system would be too short to reach that kind of speed, and he added that the final product would ultimately reflect the city.

"We've emphasized the fact to them that this tunnel needs to look like Las Vegas, and it will," he said.

At a cost to LVCVA of between $35 million and $55 million — far below that of other, more conventional transit options that can cost hundreds of millions or sometimes billions — the convention center project would serve as a testbed for a wider system of tunnels in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority CEO and President Steve Hill explains an artist rendering showing The Boring Company's proposed underground tunnel to move tourists on the Las Vegas Strip during a news conference on Wednesday, March 6, 2019. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

County transportation officials are looking at a possible expansion of the system, which The Boring Company said it would finance, that would run down the length of the Strip and beyond, connecting major properties as far south as McCarran Airport and the Raiders Stadium.

If that expansion ever happens, Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, said the Boring Company tunnels would form just a part of what she called a transportation “ecosystem.”

“We have a geometry problem,” she said. “We don't have any more room for lanes at surface level, so we have to start to get creative.”

In the long-term, Quigley said autonomous vehicles, bikes, scooters and even a subway would all have to work in tandem in order to solve existing transit issues.

With the addition of Las Vegas, the Boring Company now maintains active projects in Southern California, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Another project had been planned for West L.A., though it was scuttled after community groups filed a lawsuit claiming the company tried to skirt the environmental review process.

The concept of underground transport, rail or otherwise, in Las Vegas has long been stymied by the city’s geology. The ubiquity of caliche — a concrete-like sediment that can appear sporadically beneath the soil — is a frequent obstacle to construction in the valley, extending timelines and increasing costs.

But Boring Company CEO Steve Davis said geological surveys and boring samples already taken of Las Vegas soil are promising, and that the company has already identified several domes of caliche in addition to the existing soil structure.

“It's a really important thing we have to note before we put in our proposal,” he said. “We have two boring machines that can be launched, so we wanted to make sure the geology in Las Vegas was consistent — and it is.”

Hill said it will be several months yet before a contract is finalized and construction begins, though once started, the system is projected to take roughly a year to complete.

 

2-Minute Preview: Lawmakers to hear about welfare budget, marijuana tax performance, regents resolution, lobbying reporting changes

Legislative committees are focusing less on bills and more on presentations on Thursday, with plans to hear about the performance of Nevada’s marijuana taxes, the state’s early childhood education system and regional transportation authorities.

That’s not to say no bills are on tap. Lawmakers will discuss measures that would require lobbyists and legislators to disclose less information to the public, set the stage for Nevada System of Higher Education regents to be appointed instead of elected and provide grants to entities that need matching funds to receive public lands-related federal dollars.

For more information on the status of bills working their way through the Legislature, check out The Nevada Independent’s bill tracker. And for the bills in committee today, check out the Legislature’s website for committee times and links to watch live committee meetings and floor sessions.

Here’s what to watch for on Thursday at the Legislature:

Welfare and Supreme Court budgets

One joint money subcommittee is hearing about budgets within the welfare division, including the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Energy Assistance programs, while another is hearing the details of the Nevada Supreme Court’s budget.

Both subcommittees meet at 8 a.m.

The Assembly Education Committee will hear presentations on Nevada’s Early Childhood Education programs and Nevada Reading Week, which features the Read with my Barber program.

The committee meets at 1:30 p.m.

AJR5: Taking the Board of Regents out of the constitution

Members of the Assembly Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections will hear AJR5 from the 2017 session — a measure that seeks to remove the Nevada Board of Regents from the state constitution.

The proposed constitutional amendment comes amid concerns about the regents being an elected, rather than appointed, position. While the constitutional amendment would not automatically end the election of regents because state law also specifies regents are elected, it would make it easier to move toward appointments in the future.

If it passes this year, the resolution will go to the voters for consideration.

The committee meets at 4 p.m.

AB121: Lobbyist and legislator reporting changes

Proposed by Democratic Assemblyman Skip Daly and scheduled for a hearing in the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee, AB121 would add several major exceptions to reporting requirements for lobbyists and lawmakers.

The bill would create several new categories of exemptions from the Legislature’s ban on gifts from lobbyists to legislators. Among them are certain revenues from property ownership and any payments made to lawmakers working as an independent contractor or if they receive a payment from a court-ordered judgment.

It would also allow lawmakers to avoid reporting any meetings, trips or events taken as part of their employment on their financial disclosure form. The measure would also exclude any person who employs or hires a lobbyist from having to register as a lobbyist, unless they meet the definition of a lobbyist themselves.

It also changes financial disclosure requirements for candidates appointed to a public office.

The committee meets at 4 p.m.

Transportation overview

The Assembly and Senate Growth and Infrastructure committees will meet to receive four different transportation-related presentations. Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada general manager Tina Quigley, Regional Transportation Commission of Washoe County executive director Lee Gibson and Nevada Department of Transportation director Kristina Swallow will give overview presentations of their departments.

Lawmakers will also receive a presentation on “Electrifying Nevada’s 21st Century Transportation Program.”

The committees will meet at 1:30 p.m.

Sales and pot taxes

A joint meeting of the Senate Revenue and Economic Development and Assembly Taxation committees will meet to receive two overviews from the Department of Taxation. State officials will give lawmakers an overview of state and local taxes as well as marijuana.

The joint committee will meet at 4 p.m.

SB96: Public Lands grant

Members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources are set to hear details of a bill that would create a matching grant program for local governments who receive federal funds on public land issues.

The bill, SB96, would require the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to create a Nevada Public Lands Grant Program, which would provide grants to eligible governments and other recipients who are required to put up matching funds for any federal grant related to public lands.

The legislation also includes a $500,000 appropriation to the program and allows the department director to adopt regulations on eligibility requirements and other criteria for granting of rewards.

Updated at 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 21, 2019 to clarify effect of AJR5 on regent elections.