Las Vegas Sun

September 22, 2019

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Light rail could save the city from perpetual Project Neon-like traffic


Traffic is constricted by lane closures related to Project Neon, a nearly $1 billion, 4-mile-long widening of Interstate 15 from the U.S. 95 interchange to Sahara Avenue on Tuesday, March 21, 2017.

The completion of Project Neon, the massive upgrade of Interstate 15 and the Spaghetti Bowl, is cause for both celebration and reflection.

The reason to celebrate is obvious: After three-plus years of traffic headaches and orange barrels, the work is done. To the Nevada Department of Transportation and contractors involved in Project Neon, here’s a loud bravo not only for a job well done but for beating the deadline.

But the $1 billion project is also a cautionary tale. Unless we develop mass transit, particularly light rail, we’ll face many more such projects — and the frustrations that come with them.

While Project Neon will improve traffic flow in the central valley, it’s really just a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. Our highways and roads are out of capacity, and growing more overcrowded by the day.

As our population grows and as more visitors pour into Las Vegas, it’s crucial that we reduce the number of cars on our roads.

Which leads right to light rail.

A light rail system connecting McCarran International Airport with the resort corridor and eventually to downtown and North Las Vegas would go a long way in easing pressure on our roads. For tourists and Strip workers alike, it would provide a cheap and convenient way to get to and from, and up and down, Las Vegas Boulevard.

Other regional cities, including metros that compete with us for tourists and convention visitors, have seen the value of light rail, and unfortunately are far ahead of us in developing it. Phoenix is a prime example. Its system has proven so popular that in Tempe, Ariz., they’re adding a street car system that will thread into neighborhoods to provide residents an option for skipping their cars and instead connecting to the metro-wide light rail system.

But other examples abound. At the massive Comic-Con convention in San Diego, the city’s light rail is such a popular option for attendees that the transit service increased the number of cars on the rails during the event. In Denver, the community’s light rail system packs in riders during Colorado Rockies and Denver Broncos games.

We need to catch up, Las Vegas.

Our visitor experience, a key element of our marketing efforts, depends on tourists being happy when they’re here. Sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic is no way to spend a vacation, especially considering that the average tourist visits multiple Strip properties during his or her stay.

The same applies to our convention industry. When competitors like Phoenix try to draw away conventions from Las Vegas, you can bet they tout their light rail systems and point out the congestion on the Strip.

Our economy is on the line. But so is our quality of life.

Clark County ended 2018 as the second-fastest growing county in the nation, and we haven’t slowed down this year. That means more cars are crowding onto our streets, which means more time spent in traffic, more air pollution and more greenhouse gases which are fueling climate change.

It also means a ceaseless slog of road construction. Even as Project Neon was wrapping up, work was underway on projects across the valley, with more scheduled to begin by year’s end.

We can’t pave our way out of this. In many places, particularly the heart of Las Vegas Boulevard, there’s no room left to build more lanes of traffic. And don’t think autonomous vehicles are the answer, either. They may not have drivers, but they still take up space on the roads.

The answer is light rail. The way forward starts with reconsidering this year’s decision by the Regional Transportation Commission board to build a bus rapid transit system instead of light rail on Maryland Parkway through downtown to the medical district. At the same time, we must get serious about creating a light rail system for the Strip.

The alternative is a future like the past three years.