Reno Bike Night draws hundreds every Wednesday at 6pm to the center of Reno. But decades of decisions by the Regional Transportation Commission have left them with no safe bike infrastructure, and led to high housing prices, declining bus ridership and more vehicle traffic. (Photo: Ky Plaskon, BikeWashoe.org)
There is a little secret that Nevada developers and road contractors are using to boost profits at the expense of taxpayers, drivers, prospective home buyers, and the environment, all while fomenting the scourge of high housing prices and traffic problems that plague us. These problems are arguably the most important issues of our time and the governing boards that are allowing these problems to persist are not even accountable to voters. They are appointed.
They are the regional transportation commissions (RTC) in every urban community across America, including Reno and Las Vegas. The politicians on these boards and the developers, road contractors, and auto and gas industries who support them understand how it works. For solutions, readers can skip to the end. But for those of you who need to understand why housing prices and traffic problems seem to get worse with no end in sight, I will lay it out.
Let’s quickly connect the dots between these transportation boards and the problems we have faced with Reno as an example. Developers are able to build unaffordable, unsustainable, sprawling swaths of single-family homes because the RTC boards approve roads to those communities. This focus on single-family home building consumes natural resources like trees, tightens our labor market, and makes it very difficult to build sustainable dense housing that would lower prices and conserve water and energy. The roads to the suburbs eventually get clogged with traffic and the homes are too expensive for the average Nevadan. This indirectly subsidizes developers and road contractors. It also boosts housing, gas, and auto prices because it’s the only housing available and the only way to get to that housing is in long commutes. We are trapped in this endless cycle and these boards are the key.
So who controls these boards that brought us to our knees? Well, for 18 years in Washoe County we have experienced total one-party control – conservatives. This is not a partisan attack. The Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance’s mission is to advocate for equity. One-party control for decades is not equitable. We are obligated to point out this inequity, its impacts, and who is responsible. In fact, while conservatives have been driving us to housing, traffic, and environmental armageddon, Democrats have passively stood by and let it happen. The past 18 years is a unique opportunity to observe the impact of total conservative domination, liberal passivity and the effect of unelected boards that are influenced by developers, contractors, and the auto industry.
The impacts of RTC’s long-time conservative control are community-wide. Statistics compiled by Nevada Tomorrow show that Washoe County now has more solo drivers with longer commutes to work, no increase in bike commuting, death rates are trending up, and fewer miles of bike paths are installed each year. Bus ridership has collapsed, down 2.5 million in 5 years.
The Washoe RTC board under conservative control has installed bike paths only where they won’t inconvenience drivers, and bike paths abruptly end if a driver might experience an inconvenience because the bike lane continues through an intersection. This has resulted in a largely disconnected and dangerous micromodal network full of holes community-wide. At the same time drivers complain that no one uses the bike paths — unaware that the bike paths are deadly and scary.
Nearly 30 percent of roadway deaths are bicyclists and pedestrians, according to ZeroFatalities. Students are among the victims. Reno has long needed a protected bike path through downtown from UNR to Midtown. But for decades the RTC has neglected to install one, leaving students, workers and families in danger every day. When there was finally a plan to put in a bike path from UNR to Midtown, the RTC abruptly and quietly put it on “pause” under pressure from Caesars Entertainment. City and RTC officials asked bike advocates to be patient while they did more “studies”. But a recent investigative piece by This Is Reno reveals that, behind the scenes, City and RTC officials continued to collude to kill a protected bike path for students at the behest of a casino.
It’s not just UNR and downtown where the RTC is putting students in danger. At Wooster High School in Reno, kids are using a Bird scooter share program to get to school because neither the RTC nor the school district is appropriately serving them with buses or safe paths. This is a problem district-wide.
The tide is shifting, but slowly. For the first time City and RTC staff, driven by Director of Public Works Kerrie Koski, installed a bold and innovative protected path on 5th street in Reno that sets an example for the entire state and beyond with no loss of parking for drivers. But the City should follow through with the well-studied Center Street Cycletrack to improve safety now from UNR to Midtown and stop stalling.
Solution – Land Use Commission
For the first time in 18 years the RTC Washoe Board now has a liberal majority: Mayor Hillary Schieve, Councilmember Devon Reese, and County Commissioner Alexis Hill. It’s a start. These three new voices will diversify the political landscape in a way that is long overdue, releasing us from this conservative grip and giving half our population the voice it deserves.
You bet that developers, casinos, and road contractors will be in the ear of the new board members waving large sums of political donations every day. The fact is, Democrats permitted Republicans to control transportation decisions for 18 years, unchallenged. So, clearly, new political control may not be enough to overcome the pressures of special interests.
One option is to expand these boards to include more community advocates that care about the long-term health of our community. They could include advocates for:
- Affordable housing
- Alternative transportation
- Mass transit
- Youth (concern for the future)
Expanding these boards to include people who care about affordable housing and alternative transportation is a long-shot. It would require a state-wide initiative petition and a strong coalition of all those advocates above.
There is a proposal right now that is on the right track. Among the recommendations of the Nevada Sustainable Transportation Funding Study issued in October is creating a Land Use Commission. The commission would consider the cost of land use decisions on transportation & other public infrastructure. The Nevada Legislature should back that recommendation so that current and future generations at least have a shot at escaping the scourges of nightmare traffic and unaffordable housing.
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