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June 30, 2015

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Is Las Vegas going to see light rail?

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Mr. Sun: Most progressive cities are moving toward light rail projects or have them. Phoenix has light rail, and now I’ve heard Seattle is going forward on a light rail project. I know we are building the ACE system, but it’s not light rail! I know there was talk about building a light rail line from Henderson to somewhere in the north part of the valley.

How far along is Las Vegas in finally getting light rail?

• • •

How about nowhere?

Southern Nevada transportation officials have no plans at this time to pursue light rail. Although there has been talk, off and on, about using Union Pacific rail lines for commuter trains, that’s been dropped.

As you note, dear unidentified questioner, in its stead the Regional Transportation Commission is offering various “bus rapid-transit lines” — ACE, MAX — that the agency says offer many of the benefits of light rail at a fraction of the price. Like light rail, these buses have dedicated right of way and thus aren’t competing for space with traffic; they’re fast, have limited stops and platform loading; and fares are collected before passengers board.

One study put the U.S. average for new light rail construction at about $35 million a mile. The RTC is building a 14-mile bus rapid transit line for $50 million.

Some urban planners might argue that the higher price is worth it. One great benefit of permanent mass transit systems is the surrounding area begins to redevelop and in ways that create livable, urban neighborhoods. That development tends to be denser — read, taller buildings — and more pedestrian friendly.

The RTC argues that occurs along bus rapid transit lines too. But a bus, no matter how fancy, is less permanent than a train.

Now if local transit planners had a time machine and could return to the days when the ill-fated decision was made to build the monorail, and could instead persuade its founders to spend those hundreds of millions on light rail, or some other type of rail, the valley would have momentum toward something significant.

Alas, the monorail’s founders wanted something Disneyesque.

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