Las Vegas Sun

December 5, 2019

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Why Las Vegas transportation leaders think the time is right for light rail

Congestion on Flamingo Road east of Interstate 15, already a major issue, could become nearly twice as severe over the next two decades if local leaders do not make major changes to the valley’s transportation infrastructure.

That stretch of Flamingo is among the most congested main roads in the valley, based on current traffic volume counts, so it stands to be particularly affected by expected increases in tourism and local population. And it is by no means alone: In fact, virtually all of the key thoroughfares in the Las Vegas area’s commercial core could be consumed with traffic by 2035, according to local analyst Jeremy Aguero.

Aguero said in a presentation Monday that roads would essentially have “the mobility attributes of a parking lot” under those projections.

To address the problem, the Regional Transportation Commission this week released a far-reaching transit plan that includes a range of suggested improvements to roadways and other elements of the infrastructure.

The biggest proposal, however, is for a light rail system that would link McCarran International Airport, the Strip and downtown Las Vegas.

A light rail system could move far more passengers each day than cars and buses, theoretically easing some of the stress on local roads. It helps answer a “question of capacity,” according to Aguero.

“We can’t build roads wide enough to accommodate how tall we are building buildings,” said Aguero, a principal analyst at Applied Analysis. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

Aguero thinks Las Vegas also has an advantage for light rail because of its attractive farebox recovery rate, which reflects how much of a transit system’s operating costs are covered by passenger fares. Already, current public transit on the Strip generates a 163 percent farebox recovery, according to Aguero, far exceeding the national average and helping to make light rail attractive for possible private investment.

Proponents also believe the light rail proposal would be a strong contender for federal funding, projected at between 29 percent and 46 percent of its cost.

“The goal here is to create what is essentially a horizontal elevator between the airport and the resort corridor,” said David Knowles, vice president and national transit planning leader with the firm ch2m. “Think of the airport as being one of Las Vegas’ lobbies, and the resort corridor and downtown as being the room destinations that those visitors are going to.”

Many uncertainties remain in the light rail proposal. Perhaps the biggest is the question of whether it would be built at street level, underground or as an elevated system. The costs for each vary, which is why the project’s price tag currently ranges from $2.1 billion to $12.5 billion.

Tina Quigley, the transportation commission’s general manager, said there “seems to be more interest” in a street level light rail that would go underground where necessary. But it still would need to be discussed with the community, she said.

Another unknown is exactly how the light rail would connect the Strip and the airport, as the current map presents three different options. The plan also has not identified where the light rail stations would be.

These and other aspects of plan are expected to be further discussed when the commission’s board hears about the broader transit initiative, officially called the Transportation Investment Business Plan, on Thursday. The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and the Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee should hear about the plan later on.

As the process moves forward, support from Strip resorts will be a key to ensuring that it becomes reality. No resort has emerged publicly as an opponent, but executives likely will need much more information before making a full endorsement.

Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, said members of her group had already been involved in the transit planning process and would continue to monitor it as it proceeded. In general, she said, resorts were mindful that too much traffic could deteriorate the guest experience.

“I think there's recognition that there’s a real serious congestion problem on the Strip,” Valentine said. “(Resorts) are receptive to solutions at this point, and they'll take a keen interest in continuing to be involved in the process.”

Other components of the plan, along with the financing, are sure to interest resorts as well. The plan includes connecting the monorail to Mandalay Bay and the Sands Convention Center, building seven new pedestrian bridges on the Strip, widening sidewalks there, installing high-capacity transit on Maryland Parkway and putting in a “circulator trolley” downtown, among other suggestions.

The total cost is projected at $7 billion to $12 billion, most of which would be locally funded. That figure excludes the cost of building and operating the light rail system, due to the unique funding options and uncertainties with that project.

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