Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2019

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Vote for rapid bus transit need not be last word on light rail in Las Vegas


Submitted / Valley Metro Regional Public Transportation Authority

Phoenix’s Valley Metro Rail system, shown here, 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.

Let’s not give up on light rail, Las Vegas.

The decision last month by the Regional Transportation Commission board to create a rapid bus transit route along Maryland Parkway instead of a light rail system was a disappointment, but it doesn’t have to be the last word on the matter.

It shouldn’t be the last word, either, especially considering that local residents made it abundantly clear that they preferred light rail over buses for the corridor. They voiced that view in a torrent of comments to the RTC via email, regular mail and during public meetings.

Now, there are a couple of ways local residents can keep pushing for light rail. They are as follows:

• Urge state lawmakers and local elected officials to support a ballot measure allowing local residents to vote on light rail and other transportation improvements. That suggestion comes from Robert Lang and William Brown Jr. of Brookings Mountain West, who proposed it last week in a guest column published in the Sun. Putting the issue before voters is a great idea, and Lang and Brown deserve credit for taking leadership on it. As the two pointed out, the board’s composition results in representatives from cities that wouldn’t directly benefit from light rail — Boulder City and Mesquite, for instance — having the same number of commissioners as Las Vegas. Faced with a sudden spike in the cost estimate for light rail, which recently shot from $750 million to $1 billion, it’s not surprising that some commissioners blinked.

But given the passionate support for light rail among local residents, we feel confident that voters valleywide would green-light it if given the option.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, state lawmakers and elected officials should work toward bringing about the ballot initiative. If you agree, contact information for those individuals is listed here.

• Vote for supporters of public transportation in 2020. Under the timeline for planning and engineering, there’s still a small opening in the window for light rail. But it would require a presidential administration and other elected leaders who are warm to the idea and would help drive federal funding toward its construction.

Make no mistake, light rail is still the way to go. Yes, the price tag is a whopper, but let’s not forget that light rail systems are like rocket fuel in terms of driving up real estate values of homes and other properties near routes.

That’s been proven in city after city where systems have been built, as light rail encourages development of restaurants, retail and housing that make existing neighborhoods more vibrant, fun, safe and strong. It improves the quality of life for residents in those areas, meaning they benefit massively even if they never step on a train.

Look no further than Phoenix to see the level of development that light rail generates. The system there has sparked — get ready for this — $11 billion in investment. And that doesn’t include a $231 million mixed-use development approved last month for the city’s downtown transit hub for its bus system and rail route.

Why the connection between light rail and development? Because the permanence of rails means that developers can rely on a stream of commuters, shoppers, diners, etc., coming to their properties. It’s not difficult to move bus routes around, which makes investing near them an iffy proposition. Rail lines are much more difficult to reroute.

But beyond what light rail would do for the economy, it’s also the right answer for the valley’s increasing traffic congestion.

With our community growing by leaps and bounds, and with many of our roads and highways already at capacity, we desperately need a solution that takes cars out of the picture. Rapid bus transit would help, but not as much as light rail.

Plus, as much as the light rail option would help along the Maryland Parkway corridor — and into downtown and the medical district, as it was proposed — it’s also desperately needed on the Strip.

A rail route between McCarran International Airport and up the Strip to Sahara Avenue is a must if we want to preserve our visitor experience. With surveys showing that the average tourist visits six casinos — 6.4, to be precise — it’s critical that we provide those visitors with a convenient, quick way to get up and down Las Vegas Boulevard if we want to keep them coming back.

As is, the Strip is often a parking lot at peak times. Even ride-hail drivers complain that despite surge pricing, they sit in traffic so long on busy nights that it’s at best a wash for them to haul tourists from resort to resort.

Don’t think autonomous vehicles are the answer, either. A driverless vehicle is still a car or bus of some sort, which takes up space on the street. And the boulevard is simply out of capacity much of the time.

So on light rail, the public got it exactly right.

Now, it’s time for state and local decision-makers to do their part to carry out the will of the people. Let’s encourage them to keep the fire burning.