Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2018

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Commission to kick light-rail conversations into high gear

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Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority

A Valley Metro Rail train is shown on the Arizona State University campus in Phoenix. Built at a cost of $1.4 billion, the light-rail system became operational in 2008 and since has been expanded from 20 miles to 26. As Phoenix proceeds with plans to add 40 miles to the system by 2034, officials in the Las Vegas Valley have begun discussing proposals to establish a light-rail system here.

Plans to bring light rail to Las Vegas are moving forward, at least for now.

Proponents of the transit technology are pushing it as a way to better connect McCarran International Airport with the Strip and downtown Las Vegas. Officials have not yet resolved one of the proposal’s biggest uncertainties — how it would be funded — but they have started to make some progress on the general concept.

When the board of Southern Nevada’s Regional Transportation Commission adopted a major transit plan last week, it gave the green light for officials to get started on certain planning steps related to light rail, according to Tina Quigley, the commission’s general manager.

Quigley told a group of local businesspeople and public officials Wednesday that the board authorized her agency to proceed with what is known as an alternatives analysis. She described the analysis as a “very large community conversation” that will tackle such issues as where light rail tracks should be aligned on the roadways, where the stops should be located and how the system could be funded.

The alternatives analysis is geared toward seeking some amount of federal funding for the light rail system, according to Quigley. She said the process is likely to start sometime in July and could take about 18 months to complete.

Community conversations about funding light rail are already underway, but Quigley said “we’re just dipping our toe in the water on it” right now. The whole process and timeline could be upended if officials find a way to privately fund a light rail system, use only local public funds or some combination of the two.

All of that generally would involve the plans to build light rail from the airport to the Strip down Las Vegas Boulevard and into downtown. Light rail is also being considered on Maryland Parkway, and those plans are moving forward on their own.

Quigley gave the update about light rail at a meeting arranged for those who traveled to Denver last month to look at that city’s urban rail as a possible model for Southern Nevada to follow. Some two dozen people attended the meeting at the transportation commission’s offices Wednesday; about 50 went on the Denver trip.

In addition to receiving a status update from Quigley, the group also heard from two state legislators who went to Denver and spoke generally about what they learned there.

“It took real leadership from the top,” Republican state Sen. Scott Hammond said when reflecting on how Denver was able to make rail development happen. “They weren’t talking about five years from now or 10 years from now — they looked big.”

Denver officials are opening a new 23-mile commuter rail line Friday that will connect the city’s downtown area to its airport, and three other rail lines are scheduled to open in the region this year as part of a major expansion program. Even more rail is planned for future years, adding to a transportation network that already has grown substantially since the first light rail line debuted in Denver in 1994.

Quigley said that if Las Vegas is to follow in Denver’s footsteps, it will have to overcome the fact that Southern Nevada’s local government structure isn’t as naturally inclined to support the kind of broader thinking that made long-term transit planning work so well in Colorado.

“We’re not motivated to think regionally, whereas Denver is,” she said.

Hammond and his colleague in the Legislature, Democratic Sen. Mark Manendo, may be able to help the process continue to move forward. They’re considering legislation to, among other things, clarify the transportation commission’s ability to partner with the private sector on a project such as light rail.

Hammond was chairman of the Nevada Senate’s transportation committee during the last legislative session, and Manendo was chairman the session before that. Manendo said Wednesday that he’s already submitted a bill draft request that could help accomplish “whatever we need to do” for light rail in the 2017 session.

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