Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2017

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Monorail to celebrate first birthday with little fanfare

The Las Vegas Monorail will roll past the one-year mark today with none of the fanfare that christened the $650 million system, company officials said.

At 245 days of trouble-free operations, the monorail still has several months and potentially millions more passengers to carry before it will have run free of glitches for a full 365 days.

By the end of June, when the most recent figures were released, the privately financed monorail had carried more than 5.5 million paying passengers and has averaged just shy of 30,000 riders a day, figures posted on the company's Web site show.

Monorail spokesman Todd Walker said the company had not compiled an exact count of how many days the system has been open.

The delays, meanwhile, stalled a "start-up" phase to work out kinks in the system that was supposed to be completed late last summer. A 107-day closure began after a 60-pound wheel assembly and later a small washer holding the driveshaft fell off a moving train in September.

Those falling pieces delayed the re-opening until late December, meaning the monorail did not move from the early phase until March, he said. The closure cost the system almost $9 million in lost farebox revenues.

The one-year anniversary of the July 15, 2004, opening comes on the eve of a host of changes for the monorail company, including naming Curtis Myles, deputy general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission, as the new chief executive. Myles, 42, will replace outgoing chief executive and Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, who will step into a consulting role.

Company officials also announced last Friday that the company will dissolve for-profit operating arm Transit Systems Management, a separate entity created to oversee construction of the system. TSM's contract will end later this summer, marking what officials said was a shift from a building and designing phase into successfully running the system.

Since December, the monorail has reported a 98 percent reliability rate, Walker added.

"The system is working and carrying 30,000 people a day," he said. "Safe, reliable transportation is starting to take shape on the resort corridor."

Those figures are about 15 percent lower than ridership estimates put forward by the company in months leading up to its opening, a figure monorail executives have consistently said they intend to raise. Company officials hope to reach an average 35,000 riders a day by the end of the year, he said.

But a key to bringing in more money may lie in increasing the number of times individual riders board the system, Walker said.

"Ask the people who are riding it," he said. "They're pretty happy."

A company-sponsored customer satisfaction survey completed in April gauging rider opinion shows passengers harbor mostly positive feelings toward the system. In the study, roughly three-fourths of the 381 questioned indicated they had a positive experience aboard the trains.

But lagging ridership has dragged more than $455 million in the company's revenue bonds into a higher risk junk category, according to one analyst.

Moody's, one of three Wall Street analysts that rate private bonds based on the likelihood the issuer will default, suggested in its analysis of monorail bonds that the company's board of directors considers hiking fares to offset lower-than-expected ridership.

Such a move could prove risky because almost a third of those asked in the April survey indicated they would like to see existing prices lowered.

Board member Terry Murphy has repeatedly said the body will not consider raising ticket prices above the $3 one-way cost anytime in the coming year. Instead, the board is expected to step up marketing efforts to lure more riders onto the trains, she said.

"Because our reliability was not where it needed to be, we did not spend the dollars on marketing," Murphy said. "The convention industry needs reliability more than marketing."

According to another survey competed in May, nine of 10 tourists questioned over four days on the Strip said they knew of the monorail and that a little more than half of another 602 people asked had ridden the system.

Of the passengers asked a month earlier, 56 percent said they would like to see the monorail expanded to other destinations, a goal that has proven challenging for the system. The Federal Transportation Administration in January denied more than $320 million in federal funds to exetend the monorail from its terminus at the Sahara hotel two miles to downtown Las Vegas.

The denial indefinitely shelved what was to be a partnership between the monorail company and RTC to build the $450 million extension.

Monorail officials are now focusing efforts on extending from the MGM Grand to McCarran International Airport, a move that would require coordination with a public entity, most likely the RTC, Murphy said. That route would likely be profitable because travelers grow frustrated with up to hourlong waits for taxicabs at the airport.

"If you're at the airport and you're waiting 45 minutes to an hour, that begs the question as to whether we need some transportation from there," Murphy said.

The board has yet to begin outlining when such an expansion could take shape, she said.

Moving forward with planned expansions to the system would require a shift in public perception Murphy said has been shaped largely by negative publicity stemming from the prolonged shutdowns.

County Building Official Ron Lynn, whose department regulates the monorail, said many of the more minor glitches, including electrical arcing on an elevated rail and the software glitch that closed the system for several hours in May, were typical of problems transportation and building projects face in their first year.

Others, including the misaligned drive shaft that required the wholesale redesign of the trains' undercarriage, exposed serious design flaws, he said.

Engineers later determined that a series of harsh vibrations loosened the wheel assembly that fell Sept. 1 and the 6-inch-wide washer that dropped from a moving train less than a week later. The trains re-opened Dec. 27.

"Each (problem) was a unique and separate issue," Lynn said. "Probably the most significant in terms of impact was the undercarriage and its alignment. That took scientists from all over to solve that problem."

The monorail has since moved from weekly county inspections -- a kind of probation for the system -- to monthly reviews.

The challenge is now to promote the system's reliability, Murphy said.

"Having the nation's first privately funded mass transit system is a pretty big accomplishment," she said. "... We sure didn't predict some of the other things that have happened. I'd love to tell you we're 100 percent certain it will run at a minimum of 98 percent reliability."

RTC General Manager Jacob Snow, whose voice broke as he spoke glowingly of long-time colleague Myles on Thursday, jokingly awarded him a hard hat for walking under the trains and a spray can marked "Building Inspector Repellent."

Murphy, who sat in the front row during the RTC meeting, said she laughed along with commissioners and the audience.

"I was sort of emotional about it," she said of Myles' send-off. "But I was laughing. You've got to have a sense of humor."