Nevada DOT Struggles With Regulatory Role in Courting Infrastructure Innovators

It may seem contradictory to believe that the future of American transportation belongs in the desert, but that’s exactly where innovation has focused in recent years: Nevada is leading the way in terms of how people will go from point A to point B.

Elon Musk’s Hyperloop One has been testing revolutionary transportation technology about 15 miles northeast of Las Vegas, which will fire a pod of people down a low-friction tube, potentially allowing tourists to travel from Las Vegas to Los Angeles – a 270-mile journey by automobile – in just 30 minutes.

Interstate 15 runs between downtown Las Vegas and the Apex Industrial Park. Daimler began testing its Freightliner Inspiration Vehicle in 2015, making it the first heavy-duty autonomous truck to be granted a road license in the state.

U.S. 95, a long stretch of what is now known as the state’s “Electric Highway,” juts out to the northwest of Sin City, replete with charging stations to provide electric vehicle owners with frequent access to electricity along what is otherwise a very lonely stretch of road.

“We are now building the longest continuous electric highway in the country between Reno and Las Vegas so that if you drive an electric vehicle on this remote road, you have no range anxiety,” Gov. Brian Sandoval said earlier this year at a governors’ panel during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “It is my ambition to build an electrified highway system that runs the length and breadth of the state.”

Nevada’s infrastructure assets are already known for being among the best maintained in the country. The U.S. Census Bureau publishes an annual report every year. Nevada was recently ranked as the No. 5 states for infrastructure and, within that, America’s best performer for transportation in the News Best States rankings. The state’s bridges are regarded as excellent, and it ranks in the top ten for public transit use and the top fifteen for road condition.

“We take pleasure in our roads and bridges,” Sondra Rosenberg, an assistant director of planning for the Nevada Department of Transportation, explains. “However, we don’t believe we’ll be able to keep building interstates in the 1950s model.”

Indeed, Rosenberg claims that she and her colleagues have been thinking about preserving existing roads, bridges, and transportation platforms and staying ahead of the curve for infrastructure demands that will arise in the next five, ten, or twenty years.

“We’re looking at how people travel and how that’s evolving,” she adds. “This is especially significant in my position with the rise of connected and driverless vehicles, as well as ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber.” “We are witnessing some truly transformational shifts in the transportation sector.”

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According to Rosenberg, the significant influx of people to the state in recent years has put a strain on existing infrastructure, making state and city planning even more difficult. Nevada’s population grew by 2% between July 2016 and July 2017, increasing the state’s population to slightly under 3 million people, second only to Idaho in terms of annual growth.

The state’s greater population has led it to expand existing roadways and transit alternatives in some cases, giving Rosenberg and her colleagues the chance to build the basis for self-driving vehicle technology, which is projected to become more common in the coming years.

In February, for example, the state’s Department of Transportation broke ground on a $78 million highway widening project along U.S. 95 to improve traffic flow into and out of downtown Las Vegas. The roadway will be expanded from four to six lanes. Intelligent transportation system technologies will be installed to collect and communicate weather, road conditions, and traffic congestion information to commuters.

However, the use of this new technology has prompted fresh budget concerns for the state’s transportation department. The U.S. 95 project was paid for by federal, state, and local funds, but the wider adoption of new technologies comes at a price.

The distinctions between public and private entities have begun to blur as transit options such as Hyperloop develop and governments increasingly resort to big data to assist delivery services. Companies like Hyperloop, Daimler, and Tesla have received tax breaks and regulatory changes, producing jobs and investment in the state while letting the private sector test and develop ideas that potentially alter how people move.

But, according to Rosenberg, there’s a narrow line between allowing the private sector to operate freely, potentially endangering inhabitants and polluting the environment, and stifling innovation and forcing businesses to relocate.

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“That’s the challenge right now,” Rosenberg adds, “figuring out what role the government has in regulating all of this.” “When mistakes happen, it receives more attention than when individuals are merely driving on the road… One person dies in a Tesla using autopilot, and everyone knows about it; the acceptability scale is dramatically different.”

It’s a never-ending challenge, according to Rosenberg, to determine out exactly where that boundary is. She makes it clear, though, that Nevada isn’t willing to rest on its laurels as one of the nation’s top transportation infrastructure states.

Rosenberg says, “Our responsibility is to provide safe transportation options.” “It’s fine if private businesses want to provide transit-like services; it may be better for the traveling public, but we don’t want to give them carte blanche.”

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