Las Vegas Sun

October 16, 2019

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The people in Las Vegas wanted light rail, but the leaders voted for a bus


Regional Transportation Commission

A rendering of a proposed light rail system along Maryland Parkway.

The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada board recently rejected a plan to build a light rail system along Maryland Parkway, despite public support for the $1 billion proposal.

The RTC Board of Commissioners comprises elected officials from local government: two from the county commission, two from the valley’s largest city (Las Vegas) and one each from Clark County’s other incorporated cities — Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City and Mesquite. Note that the RTC board is inequitable in that cities with less than 20,000 residents — Boulder City and Mesquite — have the same number of commissioners as cities that exceed 250,000 (North Las Vegas) and 300,000 (Henderson).

The commissioners judged light rail too expensive and opted instead to support a bus rapid transit system. Among the reasons to ignore the public’s clear preference for light rail, board members noted the need for “fiscal responsibility,” the limited geographic scope of the light rail project down Maryland Parkway, doubts about a critical mass of ridership and the preferred flexibility provided by the bus system. Board members argued that the bus option allowed for shifting travel routes, the relocation of transit stops and lower maintenance costs — although the rolling stock wears out much faster.

Yet the flexibility of buses is why they stimulate little real estate investment along their routes. By contrast, light rail has a proven record of creating higher value, higher rise and higher tax-paying development at station stops. Investors are drawn to the certainty that rail provides — it privileges their projects with permanent high-capacity transit access for decades. A simple axiom: Steel in the ground, as in steel track, puts steel in the air, as in the steel girders in high-rise buildings. By all accounts, the RTC board took none of the potential enhanced taxation and real estate development associated with light rail into account when its members made their decision.

And the board rejected significant public support for light rail expressed during a variety of long-term planning processes, public meetings and surveys. These surveys go back six years to the Southern Nevada Strong project, which queried more than 70,000 people and found that over three-quarters of residents favored light rail.

The public, however, has yet to weigh in through the ballot box, and this should be the mechanism to determine Southern Nevada’s transportation future.

Elected officials are understandably hesitant to commit public money to projects, even those with apparent public support, if the cost is $1 billion. A ballot initiative, placed in the hands of voters, would free elected officials of direct political risk for green-lighting expensive, multiyear transportation projects.

All other major Mountain West regions — Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City — approved multidecade, multimodal transit plans that included rail via direct public referendum. These metros now operate extensive and expanding light rail systems.

Consider Tempe, Ariz. Not only does the city maintain several light rail stops that connect downtown to the rest of greater Phoenix, the city is now adding its own street car system. The new street car will penetrate deep into residential areas and allow a significant share of Tempe citizens to forgo car ownership.

Speaking of cars, the RTC board offered the development of autonomous vehicles — which may be decades off — as a reason Las Vegas does not need light rail. Here is a basic fact: An autonomous vehicle is still a vehicle. Replacing traditional cars with autonomous vehicles leaves cities with the same problem — too many cars clogging our roads. It is literally a geometric equation. There is only so much street surface, and the least efficient use of space is a single-occupant vehicle.

The introduction of light rail on Maryland Parkway would serve as a precursor to addressing the more serious congestion issues facing the Strip. The daunting task of improving vehicle and pedestrian transportation movement in and around Las Vegas Boulevard is the greatest challenge to sustaining and improving the gaming/tourism/convention economy that powers the regional economy.

The new T-Mobile Arena and the much anticipated opening of the Raiders stadium, not to mention the massive expansion of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the ongoing construction of new resort properties and the expansion and renovation of existing properties, will place even greater strain on our ability to move people to and through the Strip.

The Strip will soon be the densest and tallest-built urban space in the U.S. that lacks rail-based transit. Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles holds that distinction for the moment, but a subway line running under Wilshire from downtown L.A. to Westwood is under construction.

With McCarran International Airport as the nation’s second-leading origin-destination facility — an airport where travelers land and depart the airport as opposed to using it to change planes for another destination — Las Vegas would easily provide the “critical ridership” to support rail transit to the Strip.

So where do we go from here?

We encourage Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Legislature to support a ballot initiative that would place the question of light rail and long-range transportation improvements before voters. Local political, business and community leaders should also engage on this issue.

Local leaders must also work with members of our congressional delegation to seek appropriate federal support, as have leadership teams from metros across the nation.

Phoenix just announced that the Federal Transit Administration would provide it up to $530 million to build a 5.5-mile, nine-station light rail extension from its downtown to south central neighborhoods. There is still money in D.C. for light rail, but the city making the request must be committed to rail. Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver have shown such a commitment — Las Vegas has not.

Improving the Southern Nevada transportation network is the next great challenge for the region. Las Vegas weathered the Great Recession and continues to make great strides in diversifying its economy and building a more sustainable future. The one area where the region seems more timid than bold is transportation planning, in particular rail. It is time to let the people weigh in directly on the issue via a public referendum, as we did with fuel indexing.

Given the option, most places vote for comprehensive transportation improvement plans that almost always include a rail component. Southern Nevada residents would likely do the same.

Robert Lang is executive director of Brookings Mountain West and the Lincy Institute. Lang also is a professor of urban affairs in the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. William Brown Jr. is UNLV director of Brookings Mountain West.