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June 23, 2017

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Las Vegas officials seek state permission for light rail

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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.

CARSON CITY — State and local government officials presented a legislative plan Tuesday laying the groundwork to build a multibillion-dollar light rail system to link McCarran International Airport with the Las Vegas Strip.

For two years, members of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada have been drawing blueprints for the light rail and makeovers such as pedestrian bridges or wider sidewalks on the Strip. They're also considering high-capacity transit options to connect residential neighborhoods, college campuses, Sunrise Hospital and shopping hubs.

But they need the state's permission to fund or implement any plans.

The proposal heard in the Senate Transportation Committee would give local officials new authority to seek tax hikes or federal grants to finance an expanded portfolio of major transportation developments. Senate Bill 149 would also allow them to explore new technology, including self-driving cars.

Sen. Mark Manendo, D-Las Vegas, and a half-dozen transportation officials from across the state said Nevada is woefully behind other states in terms of helping residents and tourists navigate metropolitan areas.

"If we can lead in the travel and tourism industry — and who can dispute that, accommodating more than 42 million visitors a year — I find it hard to believe our community cannot come together to help build a world-class transportation system," Manendo said.

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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.

His bill primarily intends to facilitate buildout in Las Vegas, but it is not limited to Clark County. It would also knock down some hurdles to expand public transit in Reno and elsewhere.

Nevada law currently limits regional transportation commissions to organizing "fixed guideway" systems, which exclude buses, cars, trains and some trams. It's also unclear whether RTCs can autonomously secure funding for those transportation systems.

RTC of Southern Nevada spokeswoman Angela Castro said that could doom their chances of winning federal grants, should any become available.

"Everybody is waiting to see what the federal government does in terms of transportation infrastructure investments," Castro said.

President Donald Trump campaigned on investing massively in transportation infrastructure as part of his pitch for new jobs. He has backed away from the pitch in interviews since winning the White House and has not proposed a specific funding plan.

Tina Quigley, general manager of the RTC of Southern Nevada, said she and a group of more than 30 other transportation experts based portions of SB149 on the light rail systems and transportation authorities in Denver, Phoenix, San Diego and Salt Lake City. Notably, she said, they drew from those states the need to very clearly define that regional transportation authorities have the jurisdiction to pursue mass transit systems.

The Las Vegas infrastructure plans are far from finalized. Quigley's commission estimated in December they could cost as much as $26 billion altogether. The light rail alone could cost up to $12.5 billion and could take 20-30 years to plan and build.

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