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September 16, 2014

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OPINION:

How I grew to love the monorail

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Christopher DeVargas

Passengers wait to board the Las Vegas Monorail at the Harrah’s station Monday, Nov. 14, 2011.

I was at the ticket counter behind a couple who apparently were not from here. They inadvertently purchased two too many, and the gentleman turned and offered to sell me one or both of his tickets at face value.

“You want these for $10?” he said, offering the two tickets.

“I can get them for $2,” I said.

“How?” he asked, turning toward the young woman working at the counter.

“Local,” she said.

“I live here,” I added.

It was a real Monorail Moment. I explained to the couple the discount offered those with a valid Nevada ID: A single-ride ticket is $1, meaning you can board at one stop and get off at any other for a buck. The only way to get this deal is to buy the tickets at a staffed monorail customer service counter, which are open from 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (the monorail runs from 7 a.m.-2 a.m. daily). This deal is not offered at ticket vending machines.

“Then you could have bought two tickets for us for just $2?” the guy said.

“No, because you only get two per day,” I said, “and these are mine, all mine.”

For those who are not monorail literate, the city’s passenger train snakes for about 4 miles along the east side of the Strip, starting at its northern-most point at the former Sahara hotel station on Paradise Road and remains in operation as the opening of SLS nears (though parking on that parcel is off-limits for now; your best bet is to park at McDonald’s). It stops at LVH, Las Vegas Convention Center, Harrah’s/the Quad, Flamingo, Bally’s/Paris Las Vegas and MGM Grand.

I’ve only recently been reminded of the monorail’s exact route. I’d hopped on a few times since it launched a decade ago. I have followed the history of the monorail, as have most longtime Las Vegans, recalling the planned but never delivered expansion to McCarran International Airport, UNLV and downtown Las Vegas.

Ten years later, the monorail survives as a nonprofit entity and boasts that it is the only public rail system in the U.S. that does not use public money. Ticket sales fund its operation. Steeped in bankruptcy seven years ago, the monorail has reorganized its finances to pay down debt, and the most recent ridership numbers have been encouraging. The past three quarters have shown modest but consistent increases in ridership. The needle moved 1 percent from 2012 to 2013, as 4.9 million passengers boarded. On April 17, its 60 millionth passenger boarded.

Who rides the rail? Well, not me, if you believe pure statistics. I seem a one-man demographic of Las Vegans who actually boards. Ninety-seven percent of passengers are visitors. Of those visitors, 85 percent are in town for leisure — and I’d expected, wrongly, that the majority of passengers were here for conventions. Not so. Visiting monorail passengers are a little younger than the typical Las Vegas visitor, as a third are millennials, or those 18-34 years old. A third are international tourists.

To me, the life preserver for the monorail might be the Linq. It is not easy to park anywhere on the east side of the Strip, and the Linq is host to events (such as the recent Academy of Country Music Awards show concerts) that draw several thousand fans. Three times this month, I’ve taken the monorail to either the Linq or, on a Sunday night, to Harrah’s.

I rode it for the April 12 Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley bout at MGM Grand Garden Arena, which was jammed with about 16,000 fans. After the fight, I scooted through a mass of folks at a near-standstill outside the MGM Grand and hustled to the monorail entrance. I was to my car at LVH in less than 20 minutes.

The overarching plan for the monorail is to one day expand to McCarran, UNLV and downtown. Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority chief Rossi Ralenkotter says his “global transportation” plan is to link the city’s three major convention fortresses — Las Vegas Convention Center, Sands Expo and Mandalay Bay Convention Center — on a single route. But until some sort of funding is approved, those are just optimistic ideas.

Short-term monorail plans are to implement software at the e-ticket vending machines to read credit or debit cards for local ZIP codes and offer that buck-per-ride discount. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

Of course, visitors will be envious of that cut-rate offer. But speaking for the 3 percent of Las Vegans who ride the monorail, we deserve that discount. We’ve done our homework.

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