Las Vegas Sun

August 20, 2019

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Making tracks: Light-rail proposal for Maryland Parkway is moving forward

Light rail rendering 031616

Regional Transportation Commission

A proposal to build an urban light rail or bus rapid transit system on Maryland Parkway between McCarran International Airport and downtown Las Vegas is moving forward. This image from the Regional Transportation Commission shows a version of the proposal that involves running light rail lines down both sides of the street.

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Regardless of what happens with light rail on the Las Vegas Strip, plans that could produce a similar system just a bit to the east are moving full speed ahead.

The Regional Transportation Commission held a series of public gatherings this week to collect feedback about developing either urban light rail or bus rapid transit on and near Maryland Parkway between downtown Las Vegas and McCarran International Airport. Officials seem inclined to support the light rail option, should the necessary funding be available — and they’re not waiting to see whether the transit technology will come to the Strip as well.

Both the Strip and Maryland Parkway are mentioned as possible locations for light rail in a wide-ranging transportation investment plan that the commission released last year. The fate of the light rail proposal for the Strip remains unclear, but the Maryland Parkway corridor is already progressing.

Maryland Parkway was named a prime area for transit investment by the Southern Nevada Strong project, which noted in a 2015 report that the heavily trafficked thoroughfare links the airport, UNLV, dense residential areas, medical facilities, commercial businesses and downtown. The transportation commission is now working with the Parsons Corp. engineering firm on an environmental assessment of possible transit improvements in the corridor.

If it comes to fruition, light rail or bus rapid transit would run along an 8.7-mile route with 25 stations between downtown and the airport. The bulk of the route would be on Maryland Parkway, but it’s also envisioned to extend through downtown and into the medical district near Charleston Boulevard west of Interstate 15.

Officials have said the transit investments could cost as much as $465 million, but the price tag varies depending on which technology is used. Although the bus option costs less to construct and operate, it comes with longer travel times and lower passenger and ridership, according to materials presented at the public gatherings. The light rail option, meanwhile, would cost more to build and run but would have shorter travel times and could accommodate more riders.

The new transit lines would either run down the center of the street or off to the side, with one lane taken up in each direction. The commission said side-running cars would be more efficient for traffic and require less right-of-way, but center-running cars would travel slightly faster. They have similar potential for ridership, economic development and construction and operating costs.

Downtown resident John Miles, 59, checked out the commission’s presentation Wednesday at the Bonneville Transit Center. A daily bus rider, he said he’d definitely make use of the Maryland Parkway light rail system.

“It’s faster for a commute (and) you don’t have to worry about the taxis,” Miles said. “It beats traffic.”

The transit center currently serves as a major hub for buses in Southern Nevada, but it could become a key stop for light rail, too. The commission’s current map shows the high-capacity transit line stopping there on its way between Maryland Parkway and the medical district.

Riders also may be able to take light rail from the Bonneville center to the Strip one day. A map included in the transportation investment plan last year shows the potential Strip light rail stopping there as it runs through downtown.

A Strip light rail system could connect with what's being proposed for Maryland Parkway, if both are built, but they come with different considerations and may operate differently.

David Swallow, the commission’s senior director of engineering, said the two ideas are proceeding on “parallel tracks” right now but noted that they would serve different communities. Strip light rail would serve more riders than Maryland Parkway and would have different funding options, according to Swallow. He said the Strip may also run more cars at once.

Yet that would not preclude the two from connecting, said Phil Hoffmann, Parsons project manager.

“There absolutely is, physically, from an engineering standpoint, a way to do it,” Hoffmann said.

But it’s not clear if enough local leaders — resort companies included — will get on board with light rail on the Strip. That doesn’t bother County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani, whose district includes Maryland Parkway. Giunchigliani said in a recent interview that she was focused on bringing rail to that area, even if bus improvements came first.

“Once we do that, then you’ll see more conversation on the Strip,” she said.

Light rail on the Strip also would likely need to overcome skepticism from one of Giunchigliani’s colleagues, Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who sits on the influential Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee. That committee, which vets various tourism-related development proposals, has already heard about the light rail plans and should consider them in more detail this spring.

Sisolak was strongly critical of the plans before, and he hasn’t backed down yet.

"I'm in favor of doing something to improve pedestrian and traffic flow on Las Vegas Boulevard," he said in an interview. "I'm not sure what that is."

His hesitation to support light rail boils down to cost, effectiveness and uncertainties surrounding transportation in the future.

"What is transportation going to be in 20 years? I don't have any idea,” Sisolak said.

He worries light rail could be a huge investment that might wind up becoming obsolete if new modes of transportation emerge and change the nature of the industry. Plus, he said, it was unclear how such a costly project would be funded.

Meanwhile, the Maryland Parkway plans are moving on their own timeline, with construction starting in a few years and service possibly beginning in 2023.

Sun reporter Jackie Valley contributed to this story.

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