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September 24, 2017

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THE IMPACT OF LIGHT RAIL:

How mass transit will affect downtown Las Vegas

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Christopher DeVargas

Hundreds of people gather at Symphony Park for the 12th annual Las Vegas Juneteenth Festival, Tuesday June 19, 2012.

Mass transit Across U.S.

Bay Area Rapid Transit passengers wait for a train in this Oct. 22, 2013 file photo taken in Oakland, Calif. Launch slideshow »

A look into the future: It’s 7 p.m. on the Strip. You and a few co-workers are standing on the sidewalk staring at your phones. You’re all in town a few days for a convention, and now that you have some time off, you decide to explore the city.

As you scroll through reviews of bars and restaurants, you find one downtown that catches your eye. It’s got a good happy hour, and it looks like you can catch the tail end of it if you leave right away.

Your co-worker suggests taking a bus, while another mentions Uber. Then you realize Las Vegas has a light rail line that runs right into the heart of downtown. You walk to the nearest station and, a couple minutes later, a train arrives and whisks you away. After another few minutes, you arrive at Fremont Street and step out under its glittering canopy.

Smith Center and Symphony Park

Downtown is relatively easy to get around by car, but for a pedestrian, it may as well be two islands separated by a vast ocean. A Union Pacific railroad line separates the Smith Center for the Performing Arts and other tenants at Symphony Park from Fremont Street. If you want to walk from Binion’s to the Smith Center, for instance, you must walk almost five blocks to Clark Avenue, which has the only pedestrian bridge to Symphony Park.

“There are a lot of good downtown restaurants, and many of them base their staffing levels on whether or not the Smith Center has a show,” said Myron Martin, president of the Smith Center. “But people have to drive there, park, drive to the Smith Center and park again.”

Along with its light rail plan, Regional Transportation Commission officials plan to build three pedestrian bridges over the railroad. And while the RTC’s light rail proposal wouldn’t help get locals to the Smith Center straight off the bat, transportation officials say light rail could be relatively easy to expand into residential neighborhoods in the future.

“If we can start with what they’re proposing, it can be built upon and expanded,” Martin said. “It’s one of the last items that we as a community need to check off to make this a great city.”

City of Las Vegas

Light rail long has been a goal of city officials, who see it as a way to connect tourism attractions with existing and proposed economic centers, such as UNLV and the proposed medical district on Charleston Boulevard. To do that, the RTC also is proposing a light rail line down Maryland Parkway, to run from McCarran International Airport to downtown, to link UNLV students and medical professionals moving between the university, Sunrise Hospital and University Medical Center.

Officials hope developers will see improved transit as a sign the city is on the rise. Empty lots downtown could be replaced by high-density apartments and retail, drawing more people into living in the neighborhood and making it a more attractive place to visit.

“It’s not just important for transit, it’s important for development,” said Bill Arent, director of urban redevelopment for the city of Las Vegas. “You start to see a lot more interest for urban residential and retail, which are two big focuses that we have right now.”

Fremont Street

While the economics of downtown are dwarfed by the Strip, the neighborhood still rakes in about $977 million in gaming, food and drink sales a year. The number of visitors there continues to rise, and proponents say a light rail line would only increase that.

“We have very strong ridership on our buses today,” said David Swallow, director of engineering services at the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. “Try to imagine how much quicker that service could be, how much more capacity we would have to move people with light rail.”

The main hub of a light rail line downtown would be the Bonneville Transit Hub, which combined with the RTC’s plan for a circulator, would be able to move people to locations all throughout the neighborhood. Visitors could hop on the light rail line, get off and immediately board a circulator trolley, a small streetcar that would connect to major attractions downtown. The proposed line has the streetcar stopping by the Arts District, Smith Center and Fremont Street, down to Maryland Parkway, which includes trendy bars and restaurants away from the main tourist attractions.

“Light rail would really be a game changer,” said Bill Arent, director of urban redevelopment for the city of Las Vegas. “It gives certainty to developers that there’s going to be high speed rapid transit in the corridor for a long period of time.”

The Arts District

RTC and city officials say a light rail will make downtown a more navigable area. While it’s easy to navigate places such as Fremont Street, it’s not easy to get from Fremont Street to the Arts District, which has a thriving scene of galleries, bars and restaurants. The district is a mile away from downtown casinos, and if visitors want to get there, they either must ride a bus or walk past dingy homes and empty lots.

“We want to create an environment where people feel comfortable walking around,” Swallow said. “As you have more activity on the street, it feels more vibrant and people feel more comfortable.”

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