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INTERMOUNTAIN WEST:

Even at economic crossroad, leaders accept challenge to look forward

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Sam Morris / FILE

The Colorado River, which is the main source of water for Southern Nevada, winds past Willow Beach, Ariz.

Sun, Oct 26, 2008 (2 a.m.)

Ranking Las Vegas

Some salient points about the greater Las Vegas area in the Brookings Institution report “Mega Metros: A Federal Partnership to Enhance the Intermountain West’s New Urban and Economic Reality.”

• It is the “sole low-performer” among the region’s megametros when it comes to high school diploma, bachelor’s degree and graduate degree attainment rates. The Salt Lake City-Wasatch Front, Albuquerque/Santa Fe-Northern New Mexico, Phoenix/Tucson-Sun Corridor and Denver-Front Range areas all exceed the national average, the report says.

• It is “ready-made” for light rail because of its high concentration of employment on the Strip. The bus rapid transit system being implemented by the Regional Transportation System “could bring some of the land-use changes associated with light rail.”

• High-speed rail akin to what is popular in Europe “is immediately substitutable for passenger air travel for destinations up to 200-300 miles apart,” particularly a route between Las Vegas and Southern California.

• The area is not well integrated into the global economy. Its per capita export figure in 2006 was $497 — far below the national metropolitan per capita figure of $4,191. But, the report allows, “foreign tourist and convention dollars flood into Las Vegas, which are not factored into export value.”

• The rate of bachelor’s degree attainment among adults lags the national average for foreign-born and native U.S. residents. In 2006, 19.1 percent of Las Vegas residents and 16.2 percent of its foreign-born residents had bachelor’s degrees. The average for all U.S. residents that year was 27 percent, and 26.7 percent for foreign-born residents.

• The population growth from 2000 through 2007 was almost five times the U.S. growth rate. The Las Vegas area grew 31.1 percent to almost 2.1 million, while the country as a whole grew just under 7 percent.

• In 1969, Las Vegas’ per capita income was the highest among the five Western “megapolitan” areas studied, but through 1995, it “experienced substantial erosion of its income level.”

• Since 1990, the area’s “population in poverty more than doubled.”

• “Las Vegas may have the least secure water supply of the five Western megapolitan areas studied in the report. “By 2035, the city may have to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of water, nearly as much as it currently uses, to meet demand.”

• Though McCarran International Airport ranked 10th in the world in total passengers in 2006, it did not rank in the top 30 of airports in terms of the amount of air freight cargo carried there. “Air freight ... is a critical element of the high-tech economy where high value components are shifted around the world in the manufacturing process.”

• McCarran ranks high, however, as an airport of origin and destination. It is the ninth leading such airport in the country, a status achieved “due almost exclusively to tourism and conventions.”

• Las Vegas does well on a scale of industry “clusters” — geographic concentrations of interconnected firms and supporting organizations, seen as a source of high-quality jobs and productivity growth. At the same time, however, average regional wages here “continue to trail other metros enjoying similar levels of strong cluster employment.”

Beyond the Sun

Tourism is slumping. Unemployment is at its highest rate in decades. Almost 13,000 homes in the Las Vegas Valley are in foreclosure.

But a new administration is about to take the reins in the nation’s capital. The presidential race has included talk about the need to pour money into the nation’s out-of-date railways, roads and utility networks. And one part of the country — the region in which we live — is in greater need of those improvements than almost anywhere else in the country.

So, what will Nevada do?

The Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, hopes to elicit answers from local business, utility, government and transportation leaders, bringing them together with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday morning at UNLV. Roughly 120 people have been invited.

“Now is not the time for this region to put its head in the sand, but to use this time well to imagine what the region wants to be, and to become ferocious and focused in seeking that,” said Mark Muro, policy director in Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program.

In July, Brookings released a report spelling out the growing needs of the “southern Intermountain West” — Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. The report calls for development of a cohesive delegation of players from those states to lobby the federal government for more funding.

To spur that effort, Brookings is hosting a get-together of sorts Tuesday morning, more formal than a breakfast, but with plenty of room for “a freewheeling encounter,” as Muro puts it.

County Commission Chairman Rory Reid; UNLV President David Ashley; Pat Mulroy, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority; and Jacob Snow, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, will join Sun Editor Brian Greenspun, a Brookings trustee, and others to discuss this region’s future with Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.

Bringing Reid and Ensign face to face with so many local leaders is meant to gently push the senators to start some of the state-to-state committee-forming and consensus building called for in the report, said one local leader who requested anonymity. Mulroy acknowledged that high-level talks across state lines will be key to implementing an idea she sees as key to securing water supplies for our region.

“You have to bring water from outside the (Colorado River) Basin into the basin, unless the country wants to sacrifice the 30 million people” who depend on Colorado River water, she said.

Importing water isn’t something she expects to happen for many years. But because of all the advance work it would require, “we need to start talking with other regions of the country to begin to look at how this can be done,” she said.

But why would the federal government even consider engaging Nevada and its neighbors in such complicated talks about water needs and other issues, regardless of how pressing they may be for us? Why should the federal government worry about this area more than other regions of the country?

For one thing, the Brookings report notes, the southern Intermountain West, largely because of “megapolitan” areas such as greater Las Vegas and Phoenix, is growing faster than other regions.

But it’s also a matter of fairness.

During the last century, when the federal government was handing out billions to the rest of the country for roads, rails and other industrial and cultural needs, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah were largely overlooked.

The most glaring example of that neglect is the lack of a full-fledged interstate highway connecting Las Vegas and Phoenix, two areas with roughly 6 million people between them.

Muro called the missing linkage “astonishing and absurd.”

Making the transportation connection between Las Vegas and Phoenix safer and swifter is just one goal for transportation chief Snow.

He calls for federal vision akin to that of Dwight Eisenhower, the president who deserves credit for the construction of the interstate network of highways in the 1950s.

“I see the best potential, what I think would be great for the nation, is to build a network of high-speed rail,” Snow said. “Not just here but all across the country.”

Cities or regions that invest in mobility, he added, “have an economic and social advantage over those that don’t. And talk about a vision that could help to move our country out of this torpid economic climate — that would be it.”

Since the release of the Brookings Institution’s report in July, Muro said, discussions have taken place in the cities of the southern Intermountain West about turning these ideas into realities.

Events similar to Las Vegas’ are planned for elsewhere, including one at a regional Chamber of Commerce event in Albuquerque on Monday and another in late November in the Phoenix area.

“What it’s going to take, though, is some catalyzing action,” Muro said. “We are hoping local partners will be found who want to take a lead in the kind of work it will take to create this network.”

After all, he added, the impetus for the report came from this region.

“We didn’t dream this up. This has been suggested to us from leaders in many of these places,” he said. “And there’s a sense of impatience.”

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