July | August 2017







Nevada Drives Transportation Policy into the Future

By Sean Slone, CSG director of transportation & infrastructure policy
Policymakers and researchers have been busy in recent years shaping the future of transportation in the Nevada desert. From autonomous and electric vehicles and drones to transportation funding and traffic congestion relief measures, Nevada and the city of Las Vegas have found themselves at the center of transportation innovation on a variety of fronts.
In 2011, Nevada became the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles. New legislation passed by the legislature this year will allow the state to pave the way for truly driverless vehicles in the future.
“In the first version of our legislation, we (required) a person in the passenger seat manning all the technology … and then you had the driver there who was able to take control of the vehicle,” said Nevada Department of Transportation Director Rudy Malfabon, who will speak at the CSG National Conference in Las Vegas next week. “So, you had initially two people in the car. Then we went to one. And now if (the manufacturer) can certify that they can bring that vehicle to minimal risk condition, they don’t even have to have a driver in the vehicle.”
Malfabon, who serves as 2017 vice chair of the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee, explained that “minimal risk condition” means the vehicle can pull over to the side of the road or stop safely by itself.
“It’s looking to the future as technology develops and we’re getting more automated and more capable of achieving this condition to protect public safety,” he said. “We’re more open to working with manufacturers to collaboratively achieve that and test it out in Nevada.”
That future may not be far away. A self-driving shuttle owned by French company Keolis started service in November in Las Vegas following a two-week pilot test in January. When the shuttle got into a traffic crash with a large delivery truck on its first day of operation, city officials were quick to point out the minor fender-bender was the fault of the human truck driver. The shuttle did what it was supposed to do, the officials said, stopping to avoid an accident.
Elsewhere, the CEO of Waymo, Google’s autonomous vehicle offshoot, recently announced the company is starting to test-drive fully self-driving cars on public roads in Phoenix. Other companies have promised self-driving cars by 2019 or 2020.
Nevada’s new legislation also eliminates a law under which motorists could receive a ticket for following another vehicle too closely. Nevada and other states have played host to pilot testing of truck platooning by companies like Peloton Technology that use connected vehicle technology to allow commercial trucks to follow each other closely and still stop safely.
One aspect of the 2011 legislation that remains in effect is a provision requiring a special license plate for autonomous vehicles. That provision has caused some consternation for companies that want to test vehicles across state lines and are required to switch license plates as they enter the state.
“We’re going to follow up with our Department of Motor Vehicles to … eliminate some of those burdens for companies that want to test across state lines,” Malfabon said. “You have communities that are all around (Lake Tahoe) in California and Nevada that can be a great test bed for automated vehicles and we just want to eliminate those hurdles for companies to make it more attractive.”
The urgency many state transportation officials feel about enabling the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles can be explained by one number: 37,461. That was the number of Americans killed in traffic crashes in 2016, a 5.6 percent increase over 2015, which saw an even bigger increase over 2014.
“Just over 93 percent of crashes are caused by human error,” said Malfabon, who also serves as chairman of the standing committee on highway traffic safety for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, or AASHTO. “I think the entire traffic safety community is very excited about the potential for autonomous vehicles to really help us achieve that zero-fatality goal.”
On another front, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval was one of the Western governors who recently signed a memorandum of understanding to create a network of electric vehicle recharging stations in the region. Sparks, Nevada is home to the Tesla Gigafactory, which in early 2017 began mass production of the lithium-ion battery cells used in electric vehicles.
“We’ll be looking at where we can supplement the commercial charging stations,” Malfabon said. “In Nevada, there are long stretches with not a lot in between the small rural communities so we see a role for us in providing something that’s convenient, looking at citing those at destinations … like (state parks) for instance.”
The state is using revenues from fees on Uber and Lyft rides to help fund additional charging stations, Malfabon said. Nevada also plans to take advantage of funds made available from Volkswagen’s settlement of a Clean Air Act violation case after the Environmental Protection Agency learned the German car manufacturer had cheated on its emissions tests. The settlement generated a $2.7 billion trust fund, which will be distributed across the country.
Malfabon is spending a lot of time these days thinking about what the future of transportation might look like. His department recently began the process of developing a new long-range transportation plan that is requiring them to take into account a variety of shifting winds.
Even as people are driving more and miles driven are going up, greater fuel efficiency means gas tax revenues are starting to flatline. While Nevada as a state has not raised its gas tax in 25 years, Malfabon said a couple of recent developments will allow the state to hold its own in providing transportation funding. State officials tweaked a supplemental tax based on motor vehicle registration fees, which is expected eventually to generate $65 million annually for the state highway fund. And in 2016, voters in Clark County/Las Vegas agreed to a 10-year extension of a 2013 indexing mechanism on state gas tax revenues, which is expected to generate about $3 billion to be spent on nearly 200 local transportation projects in one of the state’s most heavily trafficked regions.
Another issue Nevada is focused on for the future, according to Malfabon: the rise of ecommerce and home delivery, which have caused shifts in traffic patterns and a rethinking of what freight movement may mean going forward. Companies like Amazon are said to be looking at package delivery by drones. Nevada officials have positioned the state as a test bed for drones, Malfabon said.
And then there is the issue of which modes of transportation Nevadans will prefer in the future.
“It’s getting to the point where people are going to make the choice to rely more and more on transit and rideshare,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution and talk to folks about what’s transforming their mode-choice decisions and how that is going to affect our transportation system.”
Nevada has undertaken the largest and most expensive public works project in its history—Project NEON, which will widen a major interstate and improve connectivity in Las Vegas. With traffic through the corridor expected to double by 2035, officials hope the added connections and a network of high-occupancy vehicle lanes can reduce congestion and travel delays. But Malfabon noted the changing preferences of millennials and others already are making the old ways of predicting future traffic unreliable.
“I think people want more choice in transportation, more walkable, bike-able communities,” he said. “And I think it’s just going to engage us more to reach out to our constituents and ask them what they want and work to provide that collaboratively with our regional and local partners.”
Nevada Department of Transportation Director Rudy Malfabon will speak to the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee on Friday, Dec. 15 (2:30 to 4 p.m. PST) at the CSG National Conference in Las Vegas.
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