Monday, Jan. 18, 2016 | 1:55 a.m.
Solving traffic problems
McCarran International Airport historically has been able to accommodate a growing number of passengers. The dilemma is not so much about how many people can use the airport; it’s about what their journey is like once they step off the plane.
Airport officials are expected to report soon that they handled more than 45 million fliers in 2015, the most in years. And while the facility is well-positioned to handle even more people in the future, community leaders thinking about future growth run into the same concern as resort executives: How large can the annual passenger load grow before fliers encounter trouble getting to their hotel rooms?
McCarran spokesman Chris Jones said the airport recognizes the need for a solution to prevent overwhelming traffic in the future.
“If it gets to the point that you can’t get from the airport to your hotel and your hotel to the airport, then the business starts to constrain itself,” Jones said.
A look into the future: You just landed in Las Vegas for the latest installment of the global CES technology convention. After deboarding your plane, you skip the taxi line and passenger pickup and instead make your way to McCarran International Airport’s public transit center, where you buy a ticket for the region’s light rail line. Minutes later, you’re whizzing through the airport area, toward the bright lights of the Strip. You’ve chosen a window seat so you can take in the view.
As the train passes Mandalay Bay, the Tropicana and other big resorts, you note how Las Vegas Boulevard has evolved. It’s far more pedestrian-friendly than you remember.
While at CES over the next few days, you rarely need to take a taxi. Light rail connects your hotel to the convention centers, as well as restaurants and nightly entertainment.
One night, you venture downtown. You hop on the light rail line, and you’re at Fremont Street before you know it; getting back to your hotel is just as easy. You notice that downtown and the north Strip also have been built out. The area is bustling, and pedestrians are everywhere. You make a mental note to come back.
The number of annual visitors to Las Vegas passed the 42 million mark for the first time last year, on the heels of 2014’s record-breaking 41.1 million visitors. Hotel room occupancy on the Strip, meanwhile, was 90 percent through November, up from the previous year.
How much more volume can the Strip handle before it can’t move visitors around effectively? What about a local population of 2.5 million or more? Local tourism and transportation leaders are having a serious discussion about the need to make major infrastructure changes to stave off a traffic armageddon. Light rail can be the solution.
“It’s really hard to even start a conversation about how you move people in the numbers we’re talking about without immediately having a light rail or a mass-transit conversation,” said Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission. Light rail could move more visitors much faster than expanded roads could. “At some point, you have as many cars on a road as you can physically handle,” Applied Analysis principal analyst Jeremy Aguero said.
Moreover, a light rail line could be an experience for visitors, providing them a way to take in the sights, much like the High Roller observation wheel.
Key to making such a project happen, of course, is support from the resort industry. At a recent meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, organized by U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., numerous resort executives were interested in hearing more about a light rail project in Charlotte, N.C., where Foxx had served as mayor. And Virginia Valentine, president of the Nevada Resort Association, has said members understand the Strip’s congestion problem and are open to solutions.
Convention customers are a key component to the health of the Las Vegas tourism industry. They fill hotel rooms, gamble, drink, dine, shop and go to shows during the week, when leisure travelers are less likely to take a vacation.
Local leaders have made it a priority to keep Las Vegas at the forefront of attracting convention business. That’s why the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority bought the Riviera last year for $182.5 million, with plans to raze the building and use it for more convention space. It’s part of an effort both to accommodate more convention customers and to prevent other cities from poaching business.
But other convention cities have a selling point that Las Vegas doesn’t: fast, high-capacity public transit. Customers who attend a convention in San Francisco, for example, can travel to and from the airport, their hotel and the Moscone Center without ever getting into a car. That can make a big difference.
Proposals for a Las Vegas light rail system are in part the product of a process first put in motion more than three years ago by Rossi Ralenkotter, president of the convention authority. He gathered a group of tourism industry stakeholders to start a dialogue about transportation and told them that other places were bragging about their transit.
“(Ralenkotter) told us that he’s seeing other destinations start to market themselves as being places that are easy to get around, places that are easy to get from your conventions to the attractions,” the RTC’s Tina Quigley said. “And that is certainly something that we cannot market ourselves on.”
Ralenkotter said that being able to get to and around Las Vegas is “critical to the continued success of our tourism industry.”
There’s no doubt about it: The north Strip is in desperate need of an energy boost. For years, the resort corridor’s northernmost end — roughly between Sahara Avenue and Wynn Las Vegas — has been plagued by a lack of development. It’s filled with empty lots and unfinished projects. Aside from Circus Circus and SLS Las Vegas, there’s not much action there.
That’s sure to change thanks to a series of planned projects, namely Resorts World Las Vegas on the Stardust site, Alon Las Vegas on the New Frontier site and the Las Vegas Convention Center expansion on the Riviera site. The shuttered Fontainebleau structure on the north Strip also was put up for sale last year.
A light rail line would build on that development and help facilitate the flow of customers to the area.
County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said light rail “absolutely” would help commercial development on the north Strip. Her district includes the area, and she’s a big supporter of light rail both on the Strip and on Maryland Parkway. “It’s what transit brings,” Giunchigliani said. “It’s an economic driver.”
A light rail line also could encourage new development and shape future projects. For instance, as workers would be able to take public transit and visitors could move around the Strip more quickly, future developments may need to offer less parking, said Jeremy Aguero of Applied Analysis.
Cities around the world have more robust public transportation systems than Las Vegas. Most of the systems connect directly to the airport, even here in the United States — think BART and San Francisco International Airport, and Metro and Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C.
If light rail became a reality in Las Vegas, it would give international tourists — and out-of-town visitors in general — something they’re used to finding at other airports around the world. International visitors have accounted for about 20 percent of Las Vegas’ tourists in recent years.
“I think a lot of them are surprised that we don’t have a more advanced public transit system connecting the airport to the resorts,” the RTC’s Tina Quigley said. “Certainly, international visitors have a lot of comfort and experience in using light rail systems.”