One the most powerful public boards in Northern Nevada, controlling billions of dollars, and affecting the price of housing in our region, just turned from red to blue for the first time in nearly 20 years.
The shift in political balance has major implications for Reno. Will we be a community of urban sprawl and deadly nightmare traffic, or if we will be a town with sustainable dense development and sensible safe micromodal – walking, biking and scooter — networks
Here’s how the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission’s board of directors impacts the city’s growth: Developers can’t build sprawling homes far outside of town if the RTC won’t approve roads to get to them. But those types of projects, which generates sky-high profits for developers, are unsustainable and irresponsible because they benefit only the rich.-
The RTC board now has a majority of Democrats for the first time in 18 years. Mayor Hillary Schieve lobbied to bring on Councilmember Devon Reese; County Commissioner Alexis Hill self-advocated to join the RTC Board and succeeded. The panel is made up of elected officials who are appointed by each city and Washoe County. But even as Reno/Sparks and Washoe County political offices have vacillated from red to blue and back over the years, the RTC has remained a conservative stronghold. The board has had an iron grip on roads, according to Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance analysis. The bicycle alliance’s mission is to advocate for equity, and one-party control for decades is not equitable.
I’ve avoided making an issue of the imbalance on the board because I’ve been wary of fanning a partisan bonfire. Instead, for the past two years, TMBA members have been working behind the scenes, quietly advocating for more balance on the panel.
Why does that matter? Because absolute one-party control is undemocratic and results are one-sided. For example, schools have plenty of free parking around them, but no protected bike paths — or plans to install any — even as traffic is a growing nightmare around schools.
The impacts of RTC’s long conservative control are community-wide. Statistics compiled by the Nevada Tomorrow group show that we have more solo drivers with longer commutes, declines in mass transit use, no increase in bike commuting, and fewer miles of bike paths installed each year. Our traffic problems could be worse for sure and who is to say that liberals would do any better? If liberals were 100 percent in charge for two decades, would all of Reno be forced to ride bikes and scooters? Not likely. Instead, if our community had both liberals and conservatives around the RTC table for the past 20 years, at least we could all be blamed for our community-wide transportation and urban sprawl problems.
To its credit, the board under conservative control has supported positive developments, such as a protected bike path in Sparks. RTC also installed the area’s only bike light, a signal that tells bikers when it’s safe to proceed through an intersection, in downtown Reno. But under past RTC leadership, bike paths have been created only where they won’t inconvenience drivers, and bike paths abruptly end if a driver might experience an inconvenience because the bike lane would otherwise continue 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 we have built are deadly and scary.
Some critics of bike lanes are fond of saying that drivers pay for roads and they are the only ones entitled to use them. At the same time, they complain that bike riders act entitled because we ask for safe space on roads. In fact, most people who ride bikes also drive cars and also pay for roads. But more importantly, in America, public funds, including gas taxes, are supposed to be used for the benefit of everyone, not just the rich and middle class who can afford cars. For example, property owners pay for schools, but education isn’t only for the children of property owners. The same goes for roads; they need to work for everyone.
A little-known fact is that 25 percent of Washoe residents don’t have driver’s licenses according to Nevada Department of Transportation statistics. It follows that a quarter of roadway space should be dedicated to alternative transportation. Instead, zero-to-10 percent of roadway space has been dedicated to safe micromodal travel under RTC’s conservative leadership over the past 18 years. Nearly 30 percent of roadway deaths are vulnerable road users, according to Zero Fatalities, an advocacy group.
There are many examples of how the conservative attitude and leadership at RTC have narrowed our community’s transportation options. Scooters and bike-sharing programs are seen as complementary to bus service in many communities. People have the option of taking the bus and then riding a scooter the last mile to get to work and school. RTC runs the bus system, so you would think its leaders would be excited about the prospect of scooter and bike sharing in our community to serve their customers. However, previous RTC Chairwoman Neoma Jardon opposed Lime bikes and more recently was the only voice on the Reno City Council and RTC to oppose Bird scooters, a project supported by Democrats.
In addition, Reno has long needed a protected path from UNR to Midtown. But for decades the RTC has neglected to install one, leaving students in danger. When there was finally a plan to put in a bike path on Center Street, the RTC abruptly and quietly put it on pause under pressure from casino owner Caesars Entertainment. Uniformed attitudes also put a damper on safe bike infrastructure. RTC Vice Chairman Vaughn Hartung recently criticized the agency’s first micromodal plan, by incorrectly saying that people who wear bike clothes aren’t bike commuters. He also wondered why people don’t ride on a bike path adjacent to his morning commute. Bicycle Alliance members had to point out that what we wear doesn’t determine how we use a bike and that the bike path next to his commute ends just before a dangerous intersection, spitting people out into dangerous traffic. It’s no wonder Hartung doesn’t see people using it.
Safe micromobility directly serves less fortunate and underserved communities. One prime example is Wooster High, where kids are using Bird scooters to get to classes because neither the RTC nor the school district provides transportation. RTC has neglected to put in safe protected bike infrastructure at schools district-wide, putting our kids in danger in high-traffic areas.
The RTC’s conservative leadership’s opposition and negative attitudes toward micromobility also can put a damper on important innovations to improve alternative transportation options for our entire community. Despite the board leadership’s skepticism regarding the value of micromobility, RTC staff has quietly moved forward with proposals to make roads safer for vulnerable users and has partnered with Bird scooters. The staff members are the agency’s unsung champions. Unlike the appointed board members, RTC staffers are experts in the field of transportation. They live and breathe traffic engineering every day and watch the trends. They know what works, and what the future holds for us.
I’ve often heard the allegation that some staff members are frustrated by a backward culture at the top. Drivers in metal boxes are not the only people who deserve a safe way to get from point A to point B. Our community deserves RTC board members who look to the future and serve everyone who uses our public roads.
The good news is that these shortcomings are easily overcome. RTC, under its previous leadership, has started to work to fix the problems outlined here. The three new voices on the panel — Schieve, Commissioner Hill, and Councilman Reese — 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.
The board may return to conservative control one day and that’s not automatically bad. Some RTC board members, including Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson, have started riding bikes. That experience is opening their eyes to the perils of our roadways already well known to kids and families who ride bikes.
It would behoove the cities and Washoe County to ensure that the long-term inequity on the board doesn’t happen again. Our leaders can encourage and support the peaceful transfer of power between Republicans and Democrats each year so that everyone has a seat at the RTC table and a chance to have their priorities see the light of day.
Ky Plaskon is the President of the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance, BikeWashoe.org and producer of Bike Life Radio on KWNK 97.7FM which is owned by the non-profit Reno Bike Project.