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Benjamin Spillman

Traffic consultant aims to help improve local byways

25 August 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Everyone in Las Vegas has an opinion on traffic.

Only a few get paid to share it.

Tom Skancke is among the latter group.

Skancke, 45, is president of The Skancke Co., a small lobbying and consulting firm specializing in big problems with traffic.

If there is a discussion in Las Vegas about how to reduce traffic congestion with road upgrades and mass transit systems there's a better-than-average chance Skancke is involved.

He's the go-to transportation consultant for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which recently awarded his firm a two-year, $451,000 contract extension.

The authority, a consortium of local governments and resort owners, expects Skancke to keep leaders abreast on 20 transportation-related issues. The issues include express lanes under development on Interstate 15 between Russell Road and downtown and a $200 million interchange near San Bernardino, Calif., en route to Las Vegas that's considered "the worst bottleneck on (Interstate) 15 in San Bernardino County."

Skancke was also appointed to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, a 12-person group charged with evaluating the condition and future needs of the nation's roads, bridges, ports and train tracks.

The commission's final report stated it will cost as much as $225 billion annually for decades to bring the nation's transportation systems up to date. It was lauded for being thorough and realistic in its findings.

But critics didn't like its call for an increase to the federal gasoline tax to help fund upgrades, a provision Skancke endorsed.

Skancke also supports tolls, congestion fees and partnerships with private companies to generate money to ease congestion and reverse the decline of America's infrastructure.

"We need all the money we can get to fix the problem," he said earlier this year.

Skancke started his company in 1989 to do political fundraising and in 1990 got a contract from Circus Circus Enterprises to consult on an interchange between Interstates 40 and 15 in San Bernardino.

The interchange project started the company's evolution from partisan politics to transportation policy.

Question: What are your goals for your company and why is the work important?

Answer: It is really trying to get more projects delivered sooner with more money. There is such a deficit in surface transportation investment and has been so long, I've really worked hard to get the necessary funding. I really do this work because I believe passionately about this. The transportation system our grandparents and parents invested in is truly the economic backbone of this country. Transportation infrastructure can truly change people's quality of life. When they get home they are less stressed out, when they get to their job they are less stressed out.

Question: What are the rewards, besides a paycheck?

Answer: If you work hard and deliver projects, you can see results. When I have friends in the car or I am on the phone, I can say, "I was involved in that." It is not an ego thing, it is an accomplishment thing.

Question: What are the most significant local transportation projects?

Answer: The expansion of the (U.S. Highway) 95 corridor has been one of the most important projects in the state. It changed people's lives. I think the expansion of (U.S. Highway) 395 in Reno ... has been one of the most significant projects in the state. Think about where our community would be if our community hadn't done the Desert Inn superarterial, Las Vegas Beltway. The congestion on the two major highway arterials would have been a disaster. The improvements to the 95 corridor wouldn't have made a difference.

(I-15) express lanes are going to make a phenomenal difference. There are going to be a couple of choke points, we need some enforcement laws. But once drivers in Southern Nevada get a taste of that, I think they are going to be very pleased.

Question: Where do you think the community comes up short in transportation?

Answer: We didn't plan well as a community. We didn't plan a transit system. We didn't zone for it, 20 years ago we didn't see a need for it. You have to convince people to get out of their own horse and buggy. We have got to get people to give up independence and use transit. There is not enough money to build our way out of this.

Question: What about the bus system operated by the Regional Transportation System? Couldn't it be improved to serve the community's transportation needs for less money than rail?

Answer: Buses are not transit. Buses don't have designated right of way, not all bus stops have pullouts. Buses are used mostly in inner cities to move people to a train station. Here buses are used as a transit system, it is not designed for that. There will be 300,000 people in northwest (Las Vegas) by 2020. Buses aren't going to move 300,000 people. The bus system we have designed here acts as a transit system, but it is not transit. So it gets a bad rap. The Regional Transportation Commission transit plan is a well-thought-out, well-integrated system. Now we need the funding, and we need the right of way and we need the community to share that vision and support.

Question: You've also endorsed the idea of mass transit between Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Phoenix, partly to boost tourism. How would it boost tourism?

Answer: When an international tourist gets off the plane in Hong Kong, Munich, (Germany), or Tokyo, they have multi modal choices. We don't provide that. If I just flew in from Tokyo, and I had high-speed transit system from L.A. to Las Vegas, then L.A. becomes a commuter market for our tourism industry. We now become a different type of destination. We could sell our community differently. What it takes is vision, leadership and courage.