Las Vegas Sun

August 16, 2017

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Is light rail feasible for Las Vegas? Two experts debate the question

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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 late 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.

Lang and Woodbury on Light Rail

Robert Lang, Brookings Mountain West co-director, replies to a question about the potential of light rail in Las Vegas at the Greenspun Media Group offices on Thursday, May 26, 2016. Launch slideshow »

As the former chairman of the Nevada Regional Transportation Commission and a guiding force behind such projects as the Desert Inn arterial and the 215 Beltway, which was named in his honor, Bruce Woodbury is a foremost expert on the transportation systems of Las Vegas. The former Clark County Commission chairman, who also played a key role in establishing the RTC bus system, has been called the father of Southern Nevada transportation.

Brookings Mountain West Co-Director Robert Lang is an urban planning policy expert who has studied Las Vegas transportation extensively and has helped drive community dialogue on a number of projects aimed at improving the flow of traffic and increasing the accessibility of transportation.

So when Woodbury recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Sun questioning the feasibility of a proposal to build a light rail system connecting McCarran International Airport and the Las Vegas Strip — a proposal that Lang and the Sun have supported — the Sun asked Woodbury and Lang if they would sit down for a free-wheeling discussion about light rail and other ideas to improve the city's transportation system. They agreed, resulting in a conversation that would last nearly an hour.

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Former Regional Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Woodbury replies to a comment by Robert Lang, Brookings Mountain West co-director, about the potential of light rail in Las Vegas at the Greenspun Media Group offices on Thursday, May 26, 2016.

The discussion largely centered on light rail, including a multi-phase proposal that would first establish a 5.5-mile route from McCarran down the middle of the Strip to Sahara Avenue. Lang and other proponents of that concept believe it could be completed for $400 million and could be funded through room taxes. But in his letter, Woodbury said that while the community should consider all alternatives for enhancing mobility, "the light rail concepts proposed in the Las Vegas Sun ... are simply not realistic." He raised concerns about safety issues involving pedestrians getting to and from resorts to light rail stations, especially in the intense summer heat, and pointed out that light rail systems in other communities have required large subsidies through tax revenues for construction and operating costs.

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Robert Lang, Brookings Mountain West co-director, replies to former Regional Transportation Commission Chairman Bruce Woodbury as they discuss the potential of light rail in Las Vegas at the Greenspun Media Group offices on Thursday, May 26, 2016.

Woodbury and Lang also differed on a proposal by Clark County to build a $200 million set of elevated expressways connecting the airport and the Strip. Lang raised concerns that it would add to congestion on the Strip by making it easier for cars to get to and from the resort corridor, and would reduce air quality by increasing traffic. He also pointed out that similar expressways have been torn down in other cities after coming to be seen as eyesores that divided communities, leading to increases in crime and poverty, and weren't effective at moving traffic. Woodbury said that although he hadn't studied the expressway proposal extensively, it was developed by a competent staff and deserved to be fully vetted.

Following are excerpts from the conversation:

Bruce Woodbury: No question, we need better mass transit in all kinds of transportation options from the airport to the resort corridor. We have to seriously evaluate all possible proposals like certainly light rail, the monorail, better bus access and all of that. I just believe that when it comes to the proposed light rail system — for which we’ve advocated way back a number of years — that experience tells us that we have to be realistic about the challenges of planning and implementing such a system. And maybe as we go along, I can talk about what some of those challenges are.

Robert Lang: And I would agree. ... We’re talking about a really modest amount of rail at Stage 1, and I would not go to the federal government for it. And Stage 1 would be maybe just 5-plus miles of track that goes from the airport through the heart of the Strip. ...

Remember, too, light rail’s been discussed not only in Mr. Woodbury’s work and when the Las Vegas Monorail was built, but it’s also been discussed through the Transportation Investment Business Plan, so we’ve had a vetting of light rail. In addition, light rail came up in Southern Nevada Strong ... which was a $5 million grant from the federal government to look at long-range planning. There was a component that required citizen (input), and we had thousands of citizens who participated in this.

BW: Light rail would be wonderful if we could wave our magic wand and put the system down exactly where we want. But Las Vegas is so spread out, what we do in the resort corridor is very, very important for our economy and it benefits everybody, but in terms of transportation mobility, what we do in the resort corridor does little for 95 percent of our citizens and how they get from one place to another. We always need to have a multimodal approach. ...

We talked about the light rail. We talked about this elevated airport express. I don’t have a dog in that fight. I know the validity. I know the purpose of that expressway proposal is to cut down the travel time from the airport to areas near the resort corridor near the Strip because you’re always going to continue to have thousands of taxis, large numbers of limos, huge number of hotel shuttles, rental cars and other private cars coming to and from the airport. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be an either-or or mutually exclusive situation, although there is competition for funding. That’s why passing this ballot question (to extend the fuel indexing revenue tax) this November is so important for all of these projects.

Let me just talk for a minute about what I see as the challenges for light rail and what we’ve always run into in the past and hopefully can be overcome with the right amount and type of effort. The cost, you’re probably looking at $75 million to $125 million per mile. You not only have the track or the trains ... then there are all the main facilities and repair parts and on and on and on. ...

The major obstacle is forming a consensus with the resort hotel owners, the property owners whose right-of-way and whose customers are going to be impacted here and whose room tax is going to be used. When we went to them about light rail and/or express bus dedicated lanes, the answer was no. Bob Broadbent (former Clark County commissioner) went to them many years ago about putting the monorail down the Strip, and the answer was no — even though a couple of the major hotel chains were his partners in the project.

Every project we did on the Strip — whether it was a pedestrian bridge, the Desert Inn super arterial or Harmon Avenue, any project you put on the Strip — resulted in a huge debate among the various hotels. They had concerns about disruptions and logistics and their beautification projects and their signage, and their main thing is: How do we get people in the door? And frankly right now I imagine they’re saying, "We need to know more about this light rail project," but behind the scenes they’re saying, "I don’t think so."

RL: I don’t propose that somehow light rail cures a rainy day, or anything like it. It’s just that this is the second leading airport in the United States for origin destinations after LAX, and then it’s paired with (the Strip) and is in close proximity, which is our virtue. Our benefit here is that it’s close to this leading resort corridor in the United States. I don’t discount the idea that it’s going to be difficult to overcome information barriers and describe to a lot of the key players on the Strip the value of this.

Look at what MGM has just done. In front of major properties like Monte Carlo and New York New York, they have put in a pedestrian-oriented area (the Park) that would strike me as interfacing better with a rail system than something that would introduce more cars into an already congested space — an elevated expressway. I think maybe we have to keep going back to the Strip and checking in every several years, and I think this might be the tipping point.

Also, I think folks on the Strip have seen this work in other regions around the U.S. There are certain qualities to the Strip that are different; there are intensities of use that actually cry out for transit systems. And there’s been past resistance, but ... (among a) lot of the staff who we’ve reached out to and worked through the Transportation Investment Business Plan, there was not a lot of push back for rail. ...

I could imagine that we could do a form of transit-oriented development here that leads the world in the interface between transit system and a hotel, meaning there’s a way that the Park itself ... could by extension be one of the corridors into hotels that change the perception I think of even the way Las Vegas is seen.

The Park helps tremendously with that. We’re selling the product to an increasing younger generation, many of whom showed, by opinion research, a certain proclivity toward transit systems over previous generations. I’m referring to millennials. I will weigh in again on the elevated expressway because they’re tearing these down around the country. The shock to a millennial over a Robert Moses-style, old-fashioned, 1950s retro elevated expressway — It’s a signal, I think, that the city is not sort of with it and with the rest of the cities in the U.S.

Our competitor, our chief competitor and the one that I saw that got ahead of us in recognition for tourism for business most recently, is Orlando. They're not really discussing more elevated expressways for their tourists; they’re talking about transit systems, and so we seem to be in the discussion by ourselves. And my concern is over the competitiveness and viability, plus just the physical movement of people. There’s a point to which we have maxed out the geographical availability of space. If all of us in this room were sitting in cars, it would take up a decent intersection, but if we were sitting in transit we would be in a much smaller space. And, I’ll add this, too: Not everybody’s going to take transit. This is one of the other misnomers. ...

The point is, the competitive advantage that others have over us is that they have multimodalities. I believe in the complete sweep of everything. My concern is that we’ve overloaded automobiles and emphasis on cars between this very close Strip and this high-value airport. ...

I don’t want to the miss the discussion about the integration of the monorail because the monorail, if it were paired with light rail, becomes a wonderful, two-track, two-line system. Through a monorail connection (the light rail) behind the MGM Grand, a place behind MGM Grand and Trop, right there we could connect 4 1/2 miles of monorail. You can have nine stations in 4 1/2 miles when it comes to Mandalay Bay (connected to) every single convention space of major importance. And then if you built along the Strip, you’d have every resort in there. So somebody coming from the Las Vegas Convention Center could take the monorail down to MGM and transfer to the eastbound train, and it would be the express right to the airport from there. There would be a lot of multimodality options. ...

We could literally have in our tourist zone, nine monorail stops and perhaps 10 or 11 light rail stops if it went up to Sahara. ... In that corridor, we’d have one of the most connected spaces, and we can do this based on what you’re saying, at about $100 million a mile. I think you’d have for about a half-billion dollars, 10 miles of track. You’d have one of the most connected tourist zones. You’d have an airport connected to it. You’d have every convention space. I think it’s in our interest to try and talk people into this because I think it is an extremely virtuous thing.

BW: I don’t disagree with the vast majority of what you just stated. Theoretically, I guess I keep knocking my head against the wall in terms of my 28 years of experience on the county commission where we made a lot of good plans happen, but it was through a great deal of determination and effort and some courage on the part of a lot of people. These things could happen if the right will is there. The community would have to form a consensus with the major players that we talked about. ... I think that the resort properties there, managers are certainly aware that their customers are waiting too long to get taxis at the airport. They try to provide as many other options as they can with existing systems, but there will have to be some improvements — whether it’s, again, light rail, monorail, express buses. If we do, there is a plan, as you’ve talked about very clearly, to extend the monorail system to Mandalay Bay and hopefully get a station at the Sands Expo, connecting all of the convention centers. If the monorail is connected to a new light rail system it’ll have to be integrated, not only in technology, but financially. Because if there’s going to be a subsidy with room tax or whatever it is for a light rail system, and I don’t know what will actually happen in that regard. The monorail system ... certainly didn’t pay for itself in terms of the startup cost and had to go through some restructuring to get back in good shape, but it could not continue to pay for itself on convention traffic only. A large number of monorail customers are just regular tourists, so there would have to be a financial integration as well. So many of these issues would have to be worked out because a light rail system would in essence cannibalize, to some extent, monorail ridership. It would cannibalize bus ridership. I’m assuming you’re going to make buses go away on the Strip?

RL: Oh, It depends. There are still buses running through light rail corridors in other cities. That’s a planning discussion.

BW: All that would have to be worked out. Again. the bottom line is all of these alternatives would have to be evaluated in depth by people a lot smarter than me and Dr. Lang. ... I think the local planners for the county and the RTC and the airport, the Convention Authority as well as the private engineers and planners working for the resorts need to come together on a real plan for whatever it turns out to be. Then again, we don’t have to have mutually exclusive proposals. Let’s have an integrated system that works for the resort corridor for the whole community.

RL: There are challenges, but everybody else has done this. I mean, we can't be that far behind everybody else. We're different, and I hear, "Oh, what works in Portland won't work here." Hey, Dallas did this. Phoenix did this. I know we're different than Phoenix, but we're not that different. I mean, we're just half the size of Phoenix, we have densities that are similar to Phoenix. I think we have better opportunities to do this than Phoenix because Phoenix didn't have as close of an airport. It needed to create a people mover system to the airport that was a half-billion-dollar project on its own that they charged landing fees through. ...

Any analysis that we send out for a cost-benefit calculation, I'm confident will come back with sky-high numbers that ridership would be so strong that you'd get back all of the operating (costs) and then some. And some of that could be plowed back into some of the other overhead maintenance. And if you could just build it, they would come.

BW: That could well be true. Some light-rail systems are doing very well. I just read an article about Denver and how their system has transformed that area in a positive way. Others are experiencing drops in ridership and shutdowns for renovation. I think I read not long ago there's a huge backlog in replacement parts. Of course, all of these do require huge tax subsidies, and Robert is not shying away from the fact that we're going to need that. One thing that we always need to keep in mind in planning any system is that things are changing so fast. And in Las Vegas, there's such a rapid pace of change. We're probably going to have a new stadium, we're going to have a major convention center expansion in various places, we're going to have thousands of new rooms, and, you know, look at the technology changes that are taking place with things like Uber. We could well see major revolution with these driverless smart cars. I just saw something about China's elevated straddle buses, these monster-like things that go over the roadways. There are so many systems coming forward that it boggles the mind.

RL: That's an interesting point. ... But, you know, with driverless cars, whatever is driving the car, this is what your driverless car would tell you as it approached the Strip: "You are in traffic." Because there's still a mathematical issue, and it's a geographical issue. ...

The reality is that any system that takes a single person and wraps them in steel and has distance between vehicles — even if the distance is shortened because the smart information system is able to sort of creep up on a car — you still kind of have this mathematical reality of X number of people. Which I think is going sky high. I think our events economy is especially going to boom; I think we're going to get a stadium, I know we're going to have a bigger convention authority — you still have this mathematical problem. ...

We're up against all the property lines — there's no more space you can take out of the Strip. ... So if you go to any sort of efficiency of moving boatloads of people in a very compact space, you can't do that unless you have someone sitting in a seat next to someone else and behind them are two other people and behind them are four other people. ...

The current technology reality, and what I see in the next several decades, is that no matter how smart the cars are, they aren't smart enough to get you out of traffic.

BW: Well, I think for me the conclusion is that, yes, we need new major, modernistic transportation systems. Light rail certainly has to be on the menu. And we also need ways of continuing to better move motor vehicles that we're still going to be dealing with all over this community, including in the resort corridor, and integrate those systems in a proper way ... basically an all-of-the-above approach.

RL: And Mr. Woodbury, you also worked on the Desert Inn super arterial underneath the Strip, and that was great. We could use another one of those, by the way ... anything we can do to increase the transfer of cars under the Strip. We still need a southern access point.

BW: You mention the Desert Inn super arterial. That's an example of the challenges you have in working out any project that involves the Strip. There were those whose properties were adjacent to Desert Inn who wanted to make sure they had access. Of course, that would make it not an arterial; that would make it a regular street. ...

But Robert, I truly have enjoyed this discussion. I appreciate your major contribution to the dialogue and the planning in this community and certainly look forward to seeing some hopefully rapid improvements with the planning, and hopefully the voters will see the wisdom of voting "yes" this November, so a lot of his can be more than just theoretical.

RL: Yeah, we do need that fuel indexing (extension measure). That's key. One last comment on the elevated expressway. ... The interesting problem is the one that returns cars back to the airport. Now, I'm assuming that airport's going to get some surface improvements for the interface of cars because, oh brother, look out for what's going to happen when that fire hose opens of all these people taking that elevated expressway. I mean, any of us who have driven into that airport, who have dropped anybody off, have had to make that connection at the airport, have been in congested lines through the airport already. One of my concerns is that at the current capacity at which the airport manages car flow, if you built this additional capacity for shunting cars, that this elevated expressway would be like an elevated bridge. It would be backed up with traffic. ...

There's also the issue that a project that big is one of such regional significance that even though we're not asking for federal money, it could induce some concern on the part of the federal government. We're at the very edge of air quality, as you know. I've been with the (Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce) the last two trips we took to Washington, and we're going again in June. And every time we're there, the delegation sits down and talks with us and says, "You know, we're right at the edge on ozone." And the chamber's deeply concerned because it could really stall out development in the valley. ...

The federal government can intervene in localities on air quality, so we have to be mindful of all these forces as we do this. Also, I don't think there's going to be that much support and that much popularity of something like an elevated expressway. It hasn't been vetted yet. No one's really taken it to the public. By contrast, the numbers were sky high — something like 70,000 people who participated in the surveys done that were in all these kiosks and community places — for Southern Nevada Strong. So I know there's an appetite for this, and it's empirically based. ...

I don't know what the appetite is to build a Robert Moses-style, retro elevated expressway, but my suspicion is that it might not be very popular with some key members on the Strip, and I especially think the public and my university would offer some push back sooner or later. And I'll bet that the owners of the Hard Rock — I'm just throwing it out there — might be a little concerned about that.

BW: Well, if you're right about that, then I'm sure it will not be built. I don't know enough about the specifics to give you a real strong opinion, I just know that Denis Cederburg, the county's public works director, and his staff are excellent public servants whose motivation, I'm sure, is simply to reduce congestion and to speed up the trip to the airport and back from the resort corridor. ... I think they're just in the planning stage, and they'll have to certainly vet it in the community, including with those resort owners you talked about, and have a lot of public hearings, and maybe they can work something out that would be acceptable and would achieve their goals. If not, and if it's more along the lines of your nightmare vision of it, I'm sure they'll go to another option. But that's what planning is all about. That's what transportation planning and engineering and public consensus-building results in: a good project.

RL: If I might make one last point. ... I don't think it's a mistake that all these regions — including two of the regions of which two of the main commissioners who are pushing for the elevated expressway hail from — decided to take these things down and that nobody essentially is building them. And when we raised the issue in Denver, they were shocked — so shocked that they thought at first it was a goof. ... I raised it, and they said: "Yeah. What a minute, you're serious? What? Really, we're sort of going in the other direction. We're looking at taking something down. We're going to fight over the expansion of I-70 at the main interchange." So I think we're sort of on the other side of some of these discussions in the rest of the country, and I'll leave it at that.

Nadine Guy, Greenspun Media Group newsroom officer coordinator, helped transcribe the interview.

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