Las Vegas Sun

October 23, 2019

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Transit plans: Will it pay to ride?

The future of light rail in Las Vegas will come before a citizens committee Thursday. The committee, which includes business people, educational leaders and other interest groups, will be asked to recommend one of four alternatives:

* Fixed rail along a 33-mile corridor running from Henderson to North Las Vegas.

* A rapid bus line running along the same corridor.

* Add more traditional bus routes on city roads.

* None of the above.

The recommendation will go to the Regional Transportation Commission, whose leaders say Clark County roadways will reach critical congestion without an independent transit line to move the growing population to jobs and other destinations. A light rail system would take at least 10 years to build.

RTC General Manager Jacob Snow isn't saying which option he will recommend to the committee.

But a transportation consultant who was hired to oppose the Las Vegas Monorail in 2000 says transportation authorities are providing a distorted picture of the costs and benefits of such a system.

Wendell Cox, an Illinois-based consultant who has spoken out against transit systems proposed in several cities, said road improvements are the best way to stay ahead of crippling congestion. Cox is a former member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission.

In interviews with the Las Vegas Sun, Snow and Cox offered their viewpoints about the alternatives proposed for Clark County.

Does the area need a transit corridor that follows a single route?

Snow: "We're well past being ready." The valley's population is expected to nearly double to 3.2 million residents by 2030. Roadways cannot handle the added traffic without alternative transportation.

Trains and buses on dedicated tracks benefit more people in cities with concentrated urban centers, which makes the Las Vegas area a good candidate.

Cox: The Strip already has one of the best public transit systems in the country. People in the vast suburban areas are less likely to benefit from transportation along a single, fixed corridor.

"At least 5.5 million of the 6 million (daily) trips made in Las Vegas can't be done with transit." Most research shows commuters aren't willing to walk more than a quarter mile to get to and from transit stops.

The area would be better served by investing in arterial road improvements, which are more cost-effective and benefit both motorists and bus passengers.

How many people would ride?

Snow: An RTC survey shows that 83 percent of residents already use public transit, or said they would use it if and when it met their needs. The RTC estimates that more than 81,000 people would use the fixed guideway system each day.

The public's perception of light rail is generally more positive than that of buses. But either system can attract customers if it offers comfort, convenience, reliability and security.

"I don't think the mode matters at all. I think it's how you deploy the mode."

Cox: Though the survey found that many people favor public transit, serving their diverse needs is difficult with a single route that is not connected to other transit corridors. "The survey is of no consequence or relevance to the debate at all."

The challenge isn't changing perceptions about transit -- it's coming up with a system that is faster and more convenient than cars.

Would a dedicated transit line reduce congestion?

Snow: If county officials don't act fast, residents could be facing "the perfect storm of congestion" in years to come.

Intense development in concentrated urban areas can lead to huge traffic problems, but it also makes public transit more effective in relieving those problems. A fixed guideway system also would reduce congestion, pollution and aggravation for motorists.

"Even if you don't ride it, you do benefit from it."

Cox: Cities with light rail or dedicated bus routes -- including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland -- have just as many traffic problems as anywhere else.

"Everybody loves to believe that transit reduces traffic congestion. It doesn't. It never has anywhere."

The percentage of residents riding such systems on a daily basis simply isn't high enough to put a real dent in the number of cars on the road. "Auto traffic congestion can only be solved with more and better roads."

What would a fixed guideway system cost?

Snow: The estimated capital cost for a light rail system is $732 million, or $23.6 million per mile. A "rubber tire" bus system running on an asphalt track would cost about $613 million to build -- about $19.8 million per mile.

Up to half that amount could be paid with federal gasoline taxes that Clark County residents already pay without reaping the full benefits. Both systems would have annual operating costs of roughly $200 million.

The RTC hasn't determined how it would pay for a fixed guideway system and no funding decisions would be made for four years. Snow is hoping private interests such as developers would contribute to the project, as some have done in other cities. "We may not need to have a tax increase at all."

Cox: The numbers seem skewed to make light rail look more favorable.

The RTC's cost projections for light rail are far below the industry average of $50 million per mile. The express bus system cost, however, seems inflated. "You could probably build a bus system at $5 million a mile or less."

Light rail system consultants are notorious for underestimating the actual costs because they are the same companies that build light rail systems. "If this was happening in Washington, it would be a scandal as big as the Abramoff scandal."

J. Craig Anderson can be reached at 259-2320 or at [email protected]